Working All Day and Getting Nothing Done: Revisiting the "Tyranny of the Urgent"

Working is good. Working hard is godly. Jesus wore himself out (Mark 4:37-38). It is obnoxious to pray for rain without first scattering seed and working the land until your hands are blistered. And therein is the balance. Work as hard as possible knowing that without the Lord’s sending of rain, labor is in vain.

There are plenty of lazy believers that misunderstand grace and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. But for many, working hard is not the issue. The issue is working rightly. Doing the tasks that need to be done, having correct priorities, and leaving the appropriate work for the next day are things diffiult to order well. At the end of the day we all have wondered, “Did I really accomplish anything today?”

Charles E. Hummel has written a classic piece with some great insight and a fantastic title to help with this. In the Tyranny of the Urgent, Hummel describes well the struggle that many of us face:

"We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important tasks rarely must be done today or even this week. Extra hours of prayer and Bible study, visit with that non-Christian friend, careful study of an important book: these projects can wait. But the urgent tasks call for instant action–endless demands; pressure every hour and day.

A man’s home is no longer his castle; it is no longer a place away from urgent tasks because the telephone breaches the walls with imperious demands. The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important tasks pushed aside. We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent."

But in the light of time’s perspective… What an eloquent way to remind us of an important truth: urgent tasks often rob us of meaningful labor. There is always work to be done. There is always a pressing need. And we easily and readily neglect the important for the urgent. And in doing so, we finish tasks while never truly accomplishing anything.

Finding right priorities is not easy. Pursuing the work of important things while being responsible with the urgent tasks in one’s life requires wisdom. Our joy is this, though; our Lord gladly gives wisdom to those who ask and pursue it. And once wisdom is sought, she willingly comes to her suitor and lavishes him with her treasures (Proverbs 3: 13-18).

Looking to God’s word and seeking wisdom, here are but two things to help us in this tension. First, make quiet time with the Lord a priority (Mark 1:35). Being still and knowing that He is God is essential in having a God oriented day. If we are to be about doing the right things, we must set off in the right direction lest we find ourselves in a field that ought not be worked. Having a quiet moment in the morning to hear God speak is a requirement for those who wish to have eyes and discerning mind for the day before them.

Second, submit your plans to others. Often we become too narrow in our thinking. What we think important tends not to be. Others help us see this. And sometimes, it is the words of others that give us the permission, the freedom, to not do something we have been sold as dire. This is part of the value of the body of Christ; it keep us sane and grounded. It helps us wade through the business of life, and it anchors us to that which is truly important.

If you will but practice these two things, you will find a peace in your pursuit of productivity. You will know more clearly what to focus on and when. And as the sun goes down, you will find more rest and freedom to rest though there remains much work left to be done.