When was the last time you played a pinball game—not on an app—but on one of the masterfully crafted machines of the 70s? For those born post-pinball era, here’s how it works: the player uses “flippers” to launch a metal ball toward numerous physical targets to accumulate points. Lights flash, bells ding, and bumpers thump as the points rack up—making it easy to focus on the game and lose track of everything else. Eventually, the ball slips past the frantically swinging flippers and drops out of sight. But there’s always a new ball ready to ratchet into place—just pull the plunger and send the ball on its way again.
Hitting and scoring points in a pinball game is a lot like tackling and achieving the urgencies that demand your attention every day: phone calls, texts, emails, meetings, etc. You may not feel like your urgent tasks are a game, but you might feel attracted to the rapid pace and focus that’s required to get them done. Add a small endorphin rush as you check off your to-do’s, and urgencies start to feel like scoring big in pinball: downright gratifying and even addictive at times. If you’ve ever reached the end of your day and felt like nothing of real value was accomplished, you might be suffering from what I call the Pinball Syndrome.
Because urgencies act on you and vie for your immediate attention, with the Pinball Syndrome, you start to confuse what’s urgent with what’s truly important. You end up frittering away your time on exciting, but less important things—or worse, on distractions that guarantee you the next “high.” You are so busy fighting fires, you forget to spend time preventing them in the first place.
While some urgencies are also important, it’s vital to recognize that many important things are not urgent. They require you to act on them: long-term goals, important projects, and key relationships. But since urgent behaviors are easy to recognize and address, organizations often reward them. This can provide a powerful incentive to pull the plunger back, so to speak, and play round after round of trivialities.
When I say Avoid the Pinball Syndrome, I’m not advocating you step away from the urgency game altogether, but rather, that you differentiate between when you must play it and when you choose to play it. When you get a small respite between your urgencies (before the score resets and the next ball ratchets into place), it’s what you do in that moment between reaching for the plunger in autopilot mode or choosing to step back and reflect on what’s truly important—that will make all the difference.
To Avoid the Pinball Syndrome, try this:
- At the end of the week, print out last week’s calendar and task list.
- Circle any activity you define as urgent (things requiring your immediate attention). Then underline any activity you define as important (things that contribute to long-range goals, high priorities or relationship-building). If you find that every activity (including the urgent ones) are important, prioritize them.
- Add up how much time you dedicate to the urgent and how much to the important.
- Make sure the majority of your time isn’t spent on urgencies alone. Decide which 1-2 urgent activities you can eliminate or post-pone, and then block out adequate time on next week’s calendar for at least 1-2 important things.
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