Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Conquer the Tyranny of the Urgent

One question can help you prioritize effectively.

Key points

  • The "Tyranny of the Urgent" is when we constantly feel overwhelmed with too many important tasks.
  • This sense of overwhelm is rooted in a failure to effectively prioritize.
  • Learning to differentiate the urgent from the emergent allows us to effectively prioritize.

In a world where everything feels important, and we constantly feel overwhelmed trying to stay on top of it all, it’s critical to ruthlessly prioritize tasks and obligations based on their true level of importance. This struggle is called the “Tyranny of the Urgent,” and it is all too common in our lives.

Fortunately, there’s a simple question that can help you conquer it.

Here’s how to prioritize what you need to do now, and what can wait until later.

A One-Question Flowchart

Before I became an executive coach, I worked in integrated primary care as a behavioral health provider—basically, I was a psychologist who worked alongside medical providers. A common problem the psychologists on staff ran into was we would be in the middle of a therapy session and a physician would interrupt us for an “urgent matter.”

Sometimes this was something serious, like a patient having a severe panic attack or endorsing acute suicidal ideation that required immediate intervention. But most of the time, it was because a patient, during a normal medical checkup, endorsed mild anxiety or depression. Was helping these patients struggling with anxiety or depression important? Of course. But was it so important that we needed to be constantly pulled out of therapy sessions to address it? No.

So we developed a simple flowchart to prioritize what issues required immediate intervention, and what issues could wait until later to be addressed.

We asked one question:“Is this urgent or emergent?”

Urgent means it’s important, but it can wait. For example, if we were in the middle of a therapy session and a physician had someone who endorsed mild symptoms, we would follow up with them later that day. Important, but not drop-everything-and-run important.

Emergent, aka an emergency, means it’s so important we needed to drop what we were doing and immediately deal with it.

This simple question led to a significant drop in interruptions and an increase in effectiveness for everyone on the team.

Here’s how you can use this question in your day-to-day life to prioritize, stop feeling overwhelmed, and become more effective.

Put It Into Practice

The next time you feel overwhelmed, consider that it might be due to a lack of effective prioritization. Asking "Is this urgent or emergent?” is a forcing function for prioritization.

If it’s urgent, it’s important but it can wait until a more convenient time for you to handle. You can do it later today or schedule it for later in the week. Important, but not so important you have to drop everything and deal with it.

If it’s emergent, it’s an emergency—it’s so important, it instantly jumps to the top of your priority list and you need to drop everything and immediately deal with it.

Because when we constantly feel overwhelmed, as if everything is a super important emergency that we have to drop everything to take care of right now, then we haven’t prioritized effectively.

“If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority” is a common phrase for good reason. When we label something as a priority, we place a high degree of importance on it.

But we have a finite amount of time, energy, and attention on a day-to-day basis.

We become overwhelmed because we’re trying to allocate our limited resources to an unlimited number of priorities.

Final Thoughts

Very few things in life are emergent. But if we treat the urgent as if it’s emergent, we’ll constantly feel overwhelmed.

So learning to tell the difference between what we need to do now and what can wait until later is key.

Hopefully, this simple question can help you prioritize what matters and take back control of your time, energy, and attention—and finally conquer the Tyranny of the Urgent.

More from Corey Wilks Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today