Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Don’t panic

My rabbi talked in his sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah about our unfortunate tendency to set aside what is important for what is urgent. We do not allocate our time well. (My mission to understand my worker’s comp policy is like that, an urgent but unimportant problem into which I’ve now sunk far too many hours.)

This sparked a couple of follow-on thoughts. In a crisis, the important and the urgent are identical. It’s also generally clear what the important and urgent needs are. Fire? Call the fire department and get everyone outside. Responding to a crisis can be easy and satisfying, in part because we don’t have to make a choice between the important and the urgent.

But in much of our lives, the urgent is not actually important. Yet when the urgent is presented as a crisis, or when we respond to the urgent as if it is a crisis, we are pretending that the urgent is also important. And we make the wrong choices.

If we are constantly presented with one crisis after another, we should adopt the best practices of professional crisis responders. Doctors don’t run in the halls. EMTs don’t run with patients on a stretcher. Police officers don’t dash through the doors of the bank being robbed. Tech support checks for the obvious problems first. They know that the best approach is to remain calm and steady, assess the situation, and respond in a measured and rational way. The problem is that we don’t all have their training, so we naturally respond to a crisis in panic mode. We drop everything to reply to a client, to reboot the server, to look at the page proofs, to order more widgets.

My most successful days include planning what I’m going to do with my time. Sometimes (ok, often) I set aside larger important work because I am not prepared to face it, or because I prefer the easy sense of accomplishment from completing smaller tasks. I can make more progress on larger tasks by breaking them down into smaller tasks, but that doesn’t always fool me into believing that completing step 17 out of 50 is really an accomplishment. If I’m not going to tackle the important work, I might as well tackle the urgent. The importance of the planning is that it allows me to remember that the urgent work is not the important work, and prevent the urgent work from seeming like a crisis.

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