Michele Fait, an accomplished Italian mountaineer, along with his climbing partner, Swedish high-altitude skier Fredrik Ericsson, set out on an expedition to summit and ski down K2, the world’s second-highest peak, in the summer of 2009.
On June 24, 2009, the two were acclimatizing at around 6,300 meters, making a ski descent of the lower slopes. It was during this descent that an avalanche suddenly broke out. Fait was swept away by the avalanche and tragically lost his life in the accident. Despite the duo’s experience and preparation, the insidious risk hidden within the mountain’s snowy façade proved lethal.
This incident is a stark reminder of the invisible dangers that can lurk beneath the surface, unseen and powerful enough to alter the course of lives in an instant. So it is with us — individuals, organizations, and societies — as we navigate our lives, work, and shared spaces.
The weight of immediate, urgent issues often eclipses our awareness of these quieter, insidious threats that mount beneath the surface. These creeping issues, often more profound and far-reaching, sit unattended in the shadows of our attention. Why? Because they’re important but not urgent, and our brains are hardwired to prioritize the here and now. We thrive on handling fire drills and ticking off to-do lists, leaving little room for these more significant, creeping concerns. We lose sight of the forest for the trees, so to speak.
We see it in ourselves. It’s the known medical condition is going unaddressed because we fear acknowledging the truth. It’s the elephant in the board-room that isn’t acknowledged for fear of retribution. Globally, it’s taking inconvenient steps to fundamentally alter society to reduce climate change.
We kick the important issues down the street in favor of the gratification of the urgent.
The Power of Understanding
To combat this endemic problem, we first need to develop an understanding of it. Acknowledging that unseen and unattended issues can have devastating long-term effects is the initial step toward tackling them.
Research conducted by renowned sociologist Robert K. Merton aptly calls these “unintended consequences.” His study suggests that while we focus on solving immediate problems, we often ignore the potential implications of our actions, leading to unintended, often adverse, consequences in the long run.
This principle doesn’t solely apply to societal or environmental concerns; it also plays out in our personal lives and workplaces. From neglecting our health in favor of long working hours to companies dismissing employee well-being for short-term profit, the precedence of urgency over importance is all too familiar.
In his highly acclaimed book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey introduced a concept that neatly encapsulates this problem. Covey’s time management matrix classifies (also known as the Eisenhower Matrix) tasks into four quadrants based on their urgency and importance.
- Quadrant I contains urgent and important tasks.
- Quadrant II contains non-urgent but important tasks.
- Quadrant III & IV are the to be delegated or deleted.
Unfortunately, we tend to live our lives in Quadrant I, handling crises and deadlines, while the more strategic, developmental, and often vital tasks in Quadrant II get sidelined.
The Mechanics of the Mind and the Role it Plays
We can attribute a significant part of this behavioral bias to how our minds are wired. Our brains have evolved to prioritize immediate threats or rewards, an instinct that served our ancestors well in a world full of immediate physical dangers. This is known as the ‘Present Bias,’ which behavioral economists Thaler and Sunstein discuss in their influential book “Nudge”.
The present bias significantly affects how we navigate our lives, work, and society. It inclines us to respond to the immediate, the visible, and the tangible, leaving the important and yet non-urgent tasks at the mercy of “someday.” This imbalance feeds the fault line beneath our tranquil snowscape, allowing underlying issues to fester and grow unnoticed and unaddressed.
The Butterfly Effect of Neglect
So, what happens when we neglect the non-urgent but important issues in our lives? Here we can use the wisdom of Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist, who gave us the ‘Butterfly Effect’. He proposed that small, almost insignificant changes in a complex system can produce significant differences in a later state — like a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.
This ‘Butterfly Effect’ is apparent in our lives. Neglected health can lead to chronic disease; overlooked employee well-being can cause high turnover and low morale; societal issues like inequality and climate change, when left unchecked, can disrupt nations and ecosystems.
Imagine a ship setting sail without anyone checking the integrity of its hull. The voyage starts well, but as the journey progresses, water seeps in through minor breaches in the ship’s hull. Initially, it’s not an urgent issue — the ship sails on, apparently unbothered. But over time, the water level rises, the ship starts to fill, and eventually capsizes, triggering an emergency that could have been prevented.
Such is the danger of focusing solely on the urgent, the here-and-now while disregarding the important, the underlying, the potential future. We run the risk of being capsized by problems; at best, we didn’t even realize we were accumulating; at worse, we are ignoring.
Breaking Free of the Vicious Cycle
There’s a way out of this trap of urgency, a method to break free from this vicious cycle.
It’s called slowing down.
The military special operations units have the mantra, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Slow down, be more aware and intentional about your lives. Take a moment to step back, and consider the important and non-urgent items in life and work. Carve out time to address underlying issues before they become impossible to reverse.
Albert Einstein once said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” As we strive to resolve the urgent matters in our lives, let’s not forget the less obvious important issues beneath the surface. It’s time to change our thinking, recalibrate our priorities, and give these issues the attention they deserve. Only then can we effectively safeguard our lives, our work, and our society from the unseen avalanche waiting beneath the surface.