Fighting the “Tyranny of the Urgent”

Jack H. (Nick) McCall
Retired Senior Attorney

But, while imperfect, the Eisenhower matrix can certainly serve as a useful thought device to help lawyer-leaders confront the tyranny of the urgent – always an important consideration in allocating scarce resources and time, but made perhaps even more critical in a time of decentralized, off-site workforces and coronavirus-displaced teams and professionals. 

“Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961

Consider the following common situation: Your office/team/work group/small law firm is deluged with work.  Multiple filings may all be due on the same day.  Deadlines may be heading at one another in several cases that are akin to freight trains careening into the virtual train station of one’s law practice to collide at the same track.  Or, for business and securities lawyers, year-end or quarter-end SEC filings may all be due at the same time for multiple public-company clients.  Most lawyers – perhaps, make that all lawyers – have “been there,” or will be there, at some time in their professional lives.  What’s a leader to do?

Of course, some crises frankly cannot be averted and may be generated by others – courts, regulators, Congress – over whom we have little-to-no power to negotiate a change in schedules.  Some crises may be created by clients, who have valid business reasons (and who are paying your firm good money to align with and support their last-minute due dates).  Sometimes, these crises result from internally imposed deadlines and obligations, whether by oneself or one’s colleagues, but that fact alone does not make them any less meaningful or vital. Those self-imposed deadlines can, after all, be the hardest to modify, as one’s ego may be at stake.

Permit me an illustration of the stress this can create – and one possible leadership response – from my pre-legal life.  The crisis scenarios outlined in the preceding paragraph call to my mind a memorandum I received over thirty years ago during my military service.  My fellow officers and I received this holiday jewel of sorts, just before the beginning of the New Year, from our colonel.  In sharp and fairly peremptory terms, he catalogued a list of some twenty “highest-priority” items that he expected each of us to undertake for our subordinates in the coming year. 

Never mind that some of these items actually appeared to directly conflict with each other.  Never mind that these were superimposed atop longstanding goals and expectations already set for each of us as officers and for our troops as well.  Never mind that some goals were flagged for immediate action.  The memorandum closed with the following: “Do not ask me to choose which of these is my priority. They are all my priorities.” As my commander, a captain from central Texas, drawled disgustedly on reading the Colonel’s last line: “Nick, if everything is his priority, then nothing is his priority.”

His were words to live by.  Now, when I hear leaders summon up seemingly endless lists of “highest-priority” action items or multiple “number-one” goals, or words to that effect (the mental equivalent of the exclamation point on an incoming e-mail), I cannot help but think:  If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.  Directions of this kind are far from a model of good leadership.  They fail to help one’s subordinates to better focus and mirror the highest goals and values.  Importantly, however, they also represent the words of a leader who has abdicated his or her responsibility to marshal the resources necessary to fight the tyranny of the urgent.

The “tyranny of the urgent” is a term coined by time-management guru Charles E. Hummel.  The concept speaks to the stresses created in attempting to deal with and separate those things that are urgent from those things that are important.  Urgent and important matters need not always be exactly the same thing.  As Hummel wrote, while we may often react to urgent things and give short shrift to the truly important things, one’s “greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.”  

Of course, we have all faced this.  What tools might exist to help us as leaders and lawyers better manage our and others’ time without resorting to the cry of: “Everything is important; just do it all now!”  One possible solution may be suggested by the “Eisenhower Matrix.”  Supposedly crafted by president and former general Dwight D. Eisenhower, the eponymous matrix offers one tool for making decisions to better ensure that the truly important things are addressed and are not crowded out by those tasks and chores that seem overly compelling – in a word, those that seem urgent.  The matrix is best visualized as a four-box grid: two boxes on the vertical axis being “important” and “less important,” and two boxes on the horizontal axis being flagged as “urgent” and “less urgent.”  Using this 2×2 grid produces four possible outcomes:  

  • Do First:  Focus only on those tasks that one must get done “today”;
  • Schedule: While important, these tasks are not so urgent as to require one’s immediate energy and action, so prioritize them on the “to-do” list; 
  • Delegate:  Any items that are urgent but not so important as to require one’s own time and resources can be delegated to others; and
  • Don’t Do:  If something is neither urgent nor important, then it need not be done at all.[1]

Seemingly simple, the matrix can help persons and teams do a basic sorting-out of what is actually important, versus what seems merely “urgent” in their work. It is a not perfect tool.  Its effectiveness can run askew in those situations when people either simply do not focus to prioritize or refuse to delegate or give up lower-urgency tasks.[2]  

But, while imperfect, the Eisenhower matrix can certainly serve as a useful thought device to help lawyer-leaders confront the tyranny of the urgent – always an important consideration in allocating scarce resources and time, but made perhaps even more critical in a time of decentralized, off-site workforces and coronavirus-displaced teams and professionals.

[1] See, e.g., Ted Bauer, The Eisenhower Matrix Is Really All You Need for Decisions, Context Things (Aug. 30, 2017), (last visited Dec. 29, 2020) (a brief overview of the Eisenhower matrix and its use).

[2] For a history of the matrix – although it is attributed to Eisenhower, he likely did not create it – and practical suggestions on how to improve it, seeHacking the Eisenhower Matrix, NOBL Acad.  (Sept. 13, 2020), (last visited Dec. 29, 2020). 

One thought on “Fighting the “Tyranny of the Urgent”

  1. Nick, I always found it very calming in a hectic environment, to identify the most critical and important issues that needed to be addressed. I also remember how many times I was able to delegate several items to team members to lighten the load, but also to provide them with an opportunity to showcase their skills and develop themselves. As a student of history, you are also very aware that during the Cuban missile crisis, Eisenhower was contacted by Kennedy for advice. If memory serves me, he was very focused on the process that Kennedy was using to solve the problem. He knew that the right process would provide the best result.


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