By Michelle Gislason and Marissa Tirona, Senior Project Directors
These days, we’ve been spending a lot of time with exhausted leaders. Our experience usually goes something like this:
A highly talented and productive CEO (or Program Director or Associate Director) of a nonprofit shows up to our meeting feeling defeated, exhausted, and burned out. She has too much to do and not enough time to do it. She feels guilty taking time off of work because things are just “too crazy” right now. She is still running on fumes from preparing for and pulling off a presentation at the very last minute. Her voicemail is full, her email is full, and she complains about spending her days putting out fires. She isn’t sure there is an end in sight, yet after venting for a bit, she pauses and says, “But, at least I’m getting stuff done!”
Ah, there’s the hook. Getting stuff done. Lots and lots of it. In massive quantities. We, too, love to get stuff done. It’s so completely satisfying to knock things off our to-do lists.
And yet, something very important seems to be missing.
The Distinction between Urgent and Important
In "What Matters Now," Gina Trapini distinguishes between getting things done (e.g. responding to email, scheduling a meeting, checking things off a to-do list) and making things happen (e.g. organizing a community, changing perceptions, forging a new path). We paused. Are we tending to important things or distractions? Are we focusing too much on the quick fixes or the larger adaptive challenges that our complex work requires? Have we started to conflate urgent with important and lose sight of what really matters?
Many have weighed in on this topic—all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower, who is credited with first popularizing the distinction between urgent activities (those that demand immediate attention) and important activities (those that have an outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals). Patrick Lencioni has done some work here as well. He calls it the Adrenaline Bias, sharing that many leaders “suffer from a chronic case of adrenaline addiction, seemingly hooked on the daily rush of activity and firefighting within their organizations,” which keeps us from focusing on those bigger picture goals. In the social justice world, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky encourages those doing trauma services work to not make decisions from a place of scarcity or of urgency. And recently, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr., Fund shared a video on leaders of organizations that work in the immigrant rights and LGBT movements on how they navigate the challenge of balancing the important and the urgent. Finally, in a recent New York Times Op Ed column, David Brooks shares, “Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.” The list could go on and on.
Let’s be clear. For many, there are actual fires that must be put out and urgency can often feel like the reality. Hotline calls to answer, housing disputes, court appearances. These things are both urgent AND important. We are not implying otherwise. The challenge is that nonprofit work – especially direct service client work—often creates a perception that EVERYTHING is urgent and important. What is really happening is we are only tackling things that feel urgent and neglecting things that are truly important. Things like our organization’s culture or business strategy. Building the capacity of our next generation of leaders. Adaptive challenges like how to include men as allies in the domestic violence movement. Our relationships.
To us, this appears to be an addiction to urgency. And while it might be societally accepted, it’s an addiction all the same. The adrenaline starts to pump because we go into fight or flight mode and we feel energized and engaged. Over time, it takes a toll. Externally, we look like we’re pulling it off. Internally, we’re a wreck. We retain less knowledge. We take short cuts. When we perceive everything as urgent, we step into a place of hyper vigilance. And that creates fatigue.
This kind of urgency mindset and fatigue can become debilitating to impactful leadership. Specifically, it can impact our ability to be self aware and to pause to listen to our inner compass when making critical decisions. It can impact our interpersonal relationships when our self-absorbed desire to put out fires prevents us from empathizing and focusing on what other people are experiencing. And it can prevent us from being strategic and innovative – two things absolutely necessary to navigate the current nonprofit landscape.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, recently published a new book on our scarcest resource and the secret to high performance and fulfillment: attention. He shares that focusing our attention on the right things allows us to “generate scenarios for the future, navigate a complex social world, incubate creative ideas, and give our brains a refreshing break.” In Imagine: How Creativity Works, the author argues that a relaxed state of mind is important for creativity. It allows us to focus our attention inward, which can lead to all sorts of connections and insights. In contrast, focusing outward gets us stuck in the problems we’re trying to solve. And a Harvard Business Review study found that creative insights flowed best when people had clear goals but also freedom in how they reached them. Most crucial, they had protected time to think freely. This was key to breakthrough thinking. If we can carve out time during our day to not sit in meetings but instead to dedicate to thinking about the longer-term, strategic initiatives that are important to us, then we can do bigger things. Alternatively, tightly focused attention that goes from fire to fire can push us to fatigue and exhaustion, which leads to decreased effectiveness and productivity. It may appear that we are getting things done, but we are actually paying a price.
How do we know if we’re addicted to urgency? And if we are, what do we do about it? Consider these questions:
- Do you do your best work under pressure?
- Do you always seem to be rushing from task to task, event to event?
- Do you become preoccupied by something when working on something else?
- Do you give up quality time with people to handle a “crisis”?
Take the full Urgency Index Questionnaire by Stephen Covey and self-assess where you are. And if (like us) you might be just a tad addicted, consider these strategies:
- Get familiar with the work of Trauma Stewardship and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
- Explore the Urgent/Important Matrix by Stephen Covey
- Watch the Haas Jr. Fund video The Important and the Urgent: Challenges of Social Change Leadership
- Consider how to say no to trivial things and yes to important things
- Read about the work of the Energy Project
- Block out time in your calendar simply for “planning.” Some people call this reflection time or “white space” – know that this is WORK
- Take a peek at Marissa’s blog on self care, where she shares “self-care is about choices – choosing what work we say ‘yes’ to and what work we say ‘no’ to – and considering the future consequences of those choices.”
- Get clear on what talents and strengths you have that energize you (rather than deplete you). How can you do more of that and partner with others to manage for the rest?
- Challenge yourself to consider what can be re-scheduled or delegated
- Is urgency being imposed on you by your organization’s culture? If so, consider where can you influence or make requests for a different approach? If you are in a position of authority or power, are you modeling urgency addiction? If so, consider how you might be contributing to an oppressive work environment. How might you strive for a more liberation-based practice?
We have a moral mandate to find a sustainable way forward in this work. Move slowly and notice. Reasonably schedule yourself so you can take life in. Practice gratitude. Get clear on what you can, want to, and need to contribute. You can’t do everything. It’s not physically possible. So what piece will you contribute?
Michelle Gislason and Marissa Tirona are Senior Project Directors at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. Both develop and manage CompassPoint leadership initiatives and coach and train in the area of leadership, among other practice areas.
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Read some of Michelle’s blogs from this year:
- On Purpose: Aligning Individual Purpose and Organizational Direction (3/6/14)
- How Will You Fail Spectacularly This Year? (1/8/14)
Read some of Marissa's blogs from this year: