On thinking – Urgent or important

I listed a number of cognitive biases and errors in a previous, related post. Anchoring, cognitive tunnelling, cognitive closure and reactive thinking were mentioned. As promised, I am providing further exposition on these cognitive biases here. While I am doing so, I want to emphasise that I do not consider myself immune to these errors. I often catch myself committing them. However, please consider, that we can all readily agree that alcoholism is bad for our health, even if it is stated by a drunkard. Just because he is a victim of his own weak will, the principle advocated is still valid. Along the same line, I am going to talk about these cognitive errors as hard lessons learnt.

These cognitive biases and faults I highlighted are inter-related and inter-dependent. They can all be present at the same time. They amplify and intensify each other. Therefore, it is not reasonable to view them independently and in isolation from each other. Yet one stands out as a representative of all.

Perhaps the mildest form is the phenomenon called the tyranny of the urgent. In our desire to be problem free we want to fix the problems quickly. However, more often than not, a problem that needs to be fixed urgently has underlying core issues. These issues are usually not looked at as the desire for a quick fix overtakes analytical thinking.

I list a few aspects of what the tyranny of the urgent can cause. A warning is in order to the reader though. It might seem that I repeat myself. However, I only attempt to look at the same phenomenon from a number of different points of view. By nature, these things usually occur together, but not necessarily in a given order. What I listed below is my experience, while others might see a different order.

Wrong focus

Focus on immediacy, ignoring other related concerns is more common than we’d like to admit. Fixing the symptom, not necessarily the cause. While a quick fix provides relief from an uncomfortable symptom, it is usually a temporary relief. The problem causing the symptom left unsolved inevitably will be manifested again, perhaps in a different form.

Point solutions

As the problem emerges again – not necessarily manifesting itself in the same way –, a new solution is applied. Of course, typically without addressing the underlying core issues. The point solution might solve the emergency, however, it might only push the symptom somewhere else (the Theory of Constraints by Eliyahu Goldratt comes readily into mind). Once the relief is achieved, interest drops and other, similarly pressing emergencies are dealt with. The process is repeated again and again.


As the process is repeated, new problems can develop. The point solution might fix the immediate problem, however since the underlying core issues are not dealt with, the problem can be compounded. The analogy of firefighting might explain this situation. As spot fires are put out, new spots catch fire and flare up. Often these spot fires flare up faster than the previous can be put out. As the situation becomes more desperate, mistakes can be made. Without often noticing it, fires are fought that shouldn’t have been lit in the first place.

Wasting resources

Ongoing, futile firefighting means that valuable resources are dedicated to a cause that is already lost, or almost lost. These resources are not available to do other work that could be more beneficial in the long term. This prolongs the status quo of firefighting which can even become a way of life for the organisation. Repeating the same action without achieving a permanent solution or even a progress is simply wasting time and effort, and consequently money.

An example might be that information systems are not developed fast enough for the needs of the organisation. Even in a multi-project environment with continuous release management, time to market can be a burning issue for the company. New development methodologies are applied, but underlying core issues including organisational structure, culture, capability and capacity constraints, design flaws, performance, etc. are ignored. Agile technologies are fantastic tools, but they will not fix these underlying core issues.

Inevitably, as design flaws creep in, valuable time is spent fixing them. This might require the involvement of other teams working on other projects, who have their own priorities turned upside down. This can easily degenerate into a perpetual “fix-the-issues” mode, causing more delays and longer time to market.

Certain aspects cannot be automated or sped up without cutting corners. Ignoring information security and risk management aspects early on, or more painfully throughout the development cycle can create emergencies for the project team and for the information security team as well. These emergencies need attendance – as an emergency.

The priority order changes for information security personnel, yet that only means that other projects have to wait longer. The project that loses out on priority would amplify the urgency later on.  A critical point can be reached relatively quickly where project priority can’t be reorganised any more. The moment of reckoning arrives. Adjustments and promises are made. Then, another project discovers a design flow…

So what can be done to avoid such situations? The answer that comes most readily and nastily to mind is to not let urgencies dominate our life. Succumbing to internal impulses or external pressures of the moment to change priorities would be the wrong thing to do. Satisfying the requests of the moment over the important, long reaching goals is not what one should do.

However, this is easier said than done. It is not to my purpose to settle this question, even if I had the wit and learning to do it. Resisting the tyranny of the urgent is usually hard work. It is possible though, provided one is willing to put all effort into it.

Therefore, the only plausible answer to the question is that it depends. Every person needs to discover what works for them. While I am not interested in providing something like “ten things you must know about…”, let me divide it up like this, before I conclude:

First of all, awareness of cognitive biases needs to be maintained. Asking ourselves why we think what we think in a given situation can help with realising that we are sliding into committing cognitive errors. Once we realise that, corrective action can be taken. However, this is an essential condition that must be satisfied.

Questions such as these can be considered: “What is the problem we need to solve here?” “Are we addressing the right problem?” “What is the best way to solve this situation?” “What are the consequences if we do… …this or that?” In any of these situations asking “what if not” is possibly the most useful, as it creates a break from our inner compulsions to respond to mounting demands.

It is also beneficial to create a list of what is essential – therefore important – for a given project or activity. I tend to think that the definition of important is necessary here. We can easily elevate insignificant aspects of our lives to higher status than necessary. Since the list is made before the work, it is possible to include only what is significant and necessary, since what later demands immediate attention, is not there yet.

Once the list is created, the order in which it needs to be performed can also be created. All of these may seem obvious enough. It is called planning. Unfortunately, many planners work on the order structure without listing all the important elements.

Time management is another essential component. The question needs to be asked though, what principles our time management is based on. What are the values that govern our lives? Control, efficiency, achievement, pleasing others are all respectable values, however, according to S.R. Covey they do not provide the same outcome.

Once planning and time management are achieved, the hard part starts. We need to stick to the plan and to the established priorities based on the right values. Our culture is overdosing on change, but this is a particular area where change is less welcome. Resisting the change and sticking to the important requires courage and determination.

Our culture is addicted to speed, especially in our need to solve a problem. In our addiction to speed we are ready to do anything as busyness seems to alleviate that need. Temporal solutions are often put in place just to be able to demonstrate we are doing something. However, temporal solutions instead of addressing the underlying issues should be avoided. Sheer determination and effort doing the wrong thing is not helpful.

This is a matter of considerable importance, for it goes beyond the question of cognitive errors. It influences how we live our life. Do we do things for the moment or do we do things that would last longer than we do.

We need to remember: The urgent diminishes when the important is done consistently.

Why not?


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