minimalism, blackberries, and the tyranny of the urgent

in 1995, i read a book written in 1967 by charles hummel called tyranny of the urgent. a man ahead of his time, hummel describes the tension between two contestants which battle for our time: the urgent and the important. he argues that the urgent things–such as the demands at the office, the demands of other people, and even our own “inner compulsions”–typically trump the things which are important, like regular dates with our spouse, personal solitude, exercise, or meditation.

with incredible depth of insight, he notes that important things are polite; they don’t clamor for our attention. they just wait patiently for us to act. in the long run there’s a price to pay for this neglect of the important stuff. like a volcano, there comes a day when the neglected areas of our life explode and wreak havoc. ironically, we wonder how we missed the early warning signs.

our temptation is to say, “well, i just didn’t have enough time to do everything.” hummel suggests that the lack of time is ultimately a problem of setting appropriate priorities.

today i read an article from cnn titled, “drop that blackberry! multitasking may be harmful.”  some recent studies are suggesting that technological multitasking actually lowers productivity.  specifically, heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted by irrelevant information than those who aren’t constantly in a multimedia frenzy, according to the study in the proceedings of the national academy of sciences.  david goodman, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at johns hopkins university school of medicine said, “we are being flooded with too much information and you can’t selectively filter out quickly which is important and which is not important.”

which bring us back to the principles argued in tyranny of the urgent written over 40 years ago.

becoming minimalist has always been about more than removing physical belongings.  for me, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things that i most value. it is about deciding what is most important in my life and removing the things that distract me from it.  it is about removing the urgent for the sake of the important.

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Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. Catherine says

    Hi, I’m long time lurker/wannabe minimalist. I’ve read Tyranny of the Urgent and it really is amazing in it’s simplicity, and yet it’s confoundedly challenging. I choose not to read it because I don’t like the way its truths are so confronting. Not proud of that, just being honest. I’d never thought of it in conjunction with minimalism though, so I appreciate your perspective on it. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. says

    Very interesting perspective in a time of information overload. Being part of that rat race it’s really hard to find peace and quiet within yourself. At times I find myself stressed out at times by excessive multitasking due to the multi-facetted nature of my job (web developer / webmaster for a company with little insight into web processes).

    I certainly do not hope ALL ‘quiet things’ are destined crash and burn per se if procrastinated. In my line of work – I have to (de)prioritize some things (quiet or urgent) months – even years – ahead. Can’t please all – but that’s simply too bad.

    Generally, I have to deal matters one at the time and focus on the process. I aim for solid standards in my work and break projects into smaller parts and processes – and take it from there. If I linger from this approach – experience has shown me that associated human and economical resources are simply not well invested.

    Thanks for the reference to this book.

    • di says

      This is exactly how I structure everything as well. One project at a time and always following certain standards. It’s the most efficient process, whether it involves doing dishes or working as a Registered Nurse.

      Learning to prioritize takes practice. No matter what I’m doing, I’m always thinking of what I’ll do next – even if that includes taking an evening off away from everything.

  3. says

    Hi-I just found this blog and love it! I particularly enjoyed this post. I completely agree that we are in the age of information (and product) overload. How many choices for cereal does one really need? I also like how you discuss that minimalist is more than just removing the physical but the intention to promote things of value. I definitely do not do this enough…this is an excellent reminder! Thank you

  4. Carrie says

    As a college student, I must thank you for this blog. I read Tyranny of the Urgent as well and I believe I’ve been juggling things all wrong. Thanks again.

  5. di says

    I only had one small income and lived in a small apartment. I only worked part-time, because I wanted to have more spare time to take good care of my girls and parents.

    We went without most of our lives, but I can look back and say I’m still very satisfied.

    When I inherited, I spread my wealth throughout my extended family. Even though they all made more money than I ever have, none of them have ever done anything for anyone in the family.

    Rather than be grateful for the thousands of dollars that I’d given them, they all said it was still not enough. They have never done anything for me in return.

    I’m disabled now and live barely above the poverty level, but I’m content.

    Everyone chooses their own path.

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