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Everything is urgent. That’s ok.

A red siren with yellow text super-imposed that says "URGENT"

If you’re in the service business, you know the “U” word very well.

It’s urgent I get my car from the valet NOW.

It’s urgent my brother get this medicine, doctor.

It’s urgent you change my oil so I can get to the concert.

It’s urgent that my son get his breadsticks as he’s crashing from no blood sugar.

It’s urgent you get my email working in the next 5 minutes.

Before you flinch, sigh, dread or otherwise adversely react to someone requesting something that’s URGENT (caps really do help, right?), here are a few tips on how to keep it in perspective.

  • Pony express.

  • Postal mail.

  • FedEx.

  • Blackberry

  • Smartphones.

  • Twitter

Each revolution brings with it a nearly order-of-magnitude increase in speed. With that comes similar expectations of speed and delivery. Or other kinds of speed. The older you are in your profession, the more you may be filled with gratitude: amazement at the speed of change and the low cost.

But we humans get acclimated quickly. We went from FedEx being a marvelous logistical achievement to “same day delivery”. And in the IT world, a difference of milliseconds in one’s solution can be the reason one firm wins a financial services contract. So now everything is urgent. Deal with it. Just get comfortable with that idea, then you’ll respond much easier when someone presents something as urgent. That doesn’t mean you are obligated to prioritize every urgent request equally.

The great thing about the word urgent is that it is relative. If everything is urgent, then nothing is urgent.The idea of “urgent” means it takes priority. People want you to do that prioritization. They just care about their urgent item.

Respond too aggressively to each urgent item and you’ll suffer.Ignore the concept of urgent presented by someone else, and they’ll suffer, potentially significantly (or fatally depending on your profession)

Someone has to pick. Someone has to prioritize. If you’re in the support business, they will likely want you to do this. But depending on your job, you may not be required to do that. In-house positions (nursing, IT, janitorial, operations) generally expect the person doing the job to prioritize effectively and get everything done somehow.

The key is getting a person to decide. If someone is telling you that person is you, then explain that you are getting conflicting urgent requests, and someone is going to be disappointed.

IT people have a hard time with this. If they’re too empathetic, they try to help everyone and give urgency to everything. If they’re too protective, they come across as dispassionate and uninterested or jaded. It’s a balancing act and one of the main reasons we’ve created this blog.

Here are some phrases to help with managing urgency:

– “Hi, I’ve been given multiple items that I’m being told are all urgent. I’m going to need someone to help prioritize this because I’m just here to help.”

– “Hi – your item is also conflicting with ____’s in terms of urgent, so I’m going to need the two of you to determine who wants help first so I’m not guaranteed to be upsetting one of you.”

– “Hi – I’m not sure what to do first.”

– “I know you marked this as urgent, but can I show you what else I’ve been given also marked as urgent so we can calibrate it better?”

You cannot do two things simultaneously. So if you’re presented with an urgent item and you don’t know how to best prioritize it, get another party to assist. Perhaps it’s a department supervisor. You may be able to get the two competing “urgent” requesters to decide between themselves. They will want you to do it. This is where you’ll get killed. Person A doesn’t care about person B’s urgent item. They want you to sort it out, and they probably want theirs done first.

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