Wise Mind vs. Tyranny of the Urgent

I have recently been re-reading the works of the renowned organizational and personal leadership teacher, Stephen Covey. It must have been twenty years ago, maybe more, that I first encountered his books on leadership and personal change. As I re-read Covey, I linger over and sift through his wise warnings against the the tyranny of the urgent, a term culled from the Charles E. Hummel work published in the 1980’s.

In Covey’s First Things First, he discerns with us a culture-wide epidemic of urgency addiction.

  • This addiction is characterized by dependence on adrenaline rushes and stress, which ultimately exact a heavy toll on our health.
  • The feeling of thrill and compelling engagement make us feel alive when we’re swept up in winds and waves of urgency.
  • Urgency bids us to return, again and again, seducing us with the sweet buzz of dopamine, as well as adrenaline, making our reactive engagements and fits with urgency, highly reinforcing. The same process that conditions others to become dependent on amphetamines, pornography and gambling.

Additionally, urgency may function as a form of diversion from adverse states of mind and emotions by bidding us to enter a social mosh pit which is so compelling and attention consuming that no room can be given to attending to our less than flattering qualities, or distracting us from the discomfort of loneliness and boredom, or the anxiety emerging from the important tasks of life such as laundry, feeding children or taxes.

In First Things First, Covey writes:

“We get a temporary high from solving urgent and important crises. Then when the importance isn’t there, the urgency fix is so powerful we are drawn to do anything urgent, just to stay in motion.”

(Covey, 1994. pp. 33-35)

And he goes on to say that we also develop a sense of importance related to our busyness. That in fact, we get security from our busyness. Busyness can be essential to our identity! Our level of busyness seems to be a currency in a busy culture that authenticates our importance, doing important things and that we may even be highly productive. With this urgency addiction many of us are so “important” that we don’t have time to be truly present to our family, our friends or even to our own health, letting these treasures of life slide into a sad neglect.

When we are buzzing with busyness, we can be so caught up in the urgency addiction that our mind states are out of balance, with emotion mind running the show without input from reasonable mind, missing the balance we need to balance our mind states so that we can return to wise mind. What is truly important in life suffers under the tyranny of the urgent. And most of us, even when attached to urgency, can feel that something is off. We sense a gentle ache that signals that our truest and best selves desire to step out of the urgency, to hold space for what matters most to our hearts and our fullest humanity. That little ache, I believe, is what calls us to stop, breathe and to recollect our attention and come home to ourselves.

Breath settles the body and focuses the mind. It makes space for us to simply step out of the gravity of urgency and enter wise mind, where we contact our values that we also align with true north principles (another Covey principle), the way things work, and can turn our selves toward what brings quality to our lives: long-term planning, remembering love, broadening our minds, cultivating relationships, contemplate how to empower others, and engage in spiritual practices.

Turning away from urgency, and toward wise mind, takes practice. We repeat, repeat, repeat as needed. And we acknowledge that some matters of urgency can’t be helped, of course, such as unexpected crises. And there will be urgent matters of various deadlines and genuine responsibilities, but these don’t have to overwhelm our wisdom and drown what’s most fundamentally important for all of us: Love, connection and meaning.

Scott Spradlin, LPC, LMAC is a professional counselor and consultant in Wichita, KS and offices at Haus of Clarity. He provides Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), mindfulness-based counseling services and faith-based services. He is available for professional CEU training for professionals and public speaking for community organizations. He is the author of Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Put You in Control (New Harbinger, 2003).

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