Look beyond urgent

By Dean Heffta

By Dean Heffta

The tire is flat, the truck is stuck, the cows are out—sometimes on the farm it feels like all we do is run from one crisis to another. Unfortunately, when we are in crisis mode, it's nearly impossible to work on what makes the biggest long-term difference on the farm. 

Think about it—it's pretty tough to rebalance your retirement portfolio when the pilot of the plane informs you that the second of two engines just went out. Urgent wins.

As a farm leader, how can we keep ourselves from making crisis management our normal operating mode? While the concept of balancing urgent vs. important has been around for millennia, the modern approach was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.


He groups our activities into four quadrants:
1. important/urgent
2. important/not urgent
3. not important/urgent
4. not important/not urgent

Each of our activities can be classified in one of those four areas. Our challenge as farm leaders is to determine what's most important at any given time.

A while back I was having a strategic planning meeting with a client. We got into the details of the opportunities and threats his farm faced. When we discussed what was being done to manage those priorities, a reality for every farm leader emerged: "I know these things are important, but I have so much going on with the day-to-day that I just don't spend any time on these far-out issues. Plus, I'm not sure where to start."

Every business faces this dilemma—the tug between what has to get done now vs. what's going to make a difference in the future. Covey advises that we manage the urgent/important—do enough to take care of it.

But then we must invest in time to focus on the second quadrant—not urgent/important. This is where we engage in planning, systems building and big-picture thinking. Basically, this work keeps us from having to spend time wrapped up in the urgent. If you have cattle, it means planning and building a better fence—rather than dealing with the escaped cattle.

The strategic plan results for that client's farm have been significant. We identified three key future threats to the farm and developed basic action steps to address the issues. Since the meeting, the farmer has completed all action steps. That's given him momentum to work on other important issues and greater peace of mind knowing he has been able to address his priorities.

So as you look at how your time is invested on your farm, ask yourself these questions:

  1. If I stop doing this, what will happen? (Find out if it’s really important.)
  2. What happens if someone other than me does this? (Grow other people.)
  3. When I’m dealing with something urgent, what happened to allow it to become urgent? (What planning was missing?)
  4. What will have the greatest impact on the farm over time? (What are the big priorities that need to drive my day-to-day activities?)

Reprinted with permission from Corn + Soybean Digest.