At work, expectations around pace are so ingrained in us we often do not see them. The unspoken default is that faster is better and work is a competition where speed is a prime category to be judged. Any gap in real-time responsiveness signals a problem. Waiting is weakness. With every email, ping, and all manner of attention grabbers, we feel the Pavlovian pull to meet the expectation now.
This phenomenon is one I call “hallucinated urgency,” which causes us to constantly and thoughtlessly race through the day and interrupt our colleagues. Under pressure, we value our own burning needs more than the time we steal from others. But our theft is shortsighted. We ignore that what goes around comes around. Our interrupting makes the behavior more expected and accepted, and therefore causes interruptions to come right back around to us.
In conversations, our hallucinated urgency quashes any chance we’ll think before responding or that we’ll tolerate a reflective pause from others. If a fire drill hits us—a daily occurrence in too many companies—we dare not step back to clarify the scope of work, who should be involved, the timeline, or the precise parameters of the request. We’re more likely to clear our desk with a dramatic sweep of a forearm and “go, go, go,” ignoring the possible rework our haste may create. This barrage of urgency will kill any deep work we attempt, and we tell ourselves we have no choice.
But it’s an illusion. Time is not moving faster—you are. Your hairstyle is your choice. Your hobbies are your choice. Your words are your choice. Your choice is urgency. You are choosing to rush. And your boss and team can write a story that blankets everything with a light dusting of mania, but you don’t have to buy in. In fact, by opting out of this particular form of social conformity you serve yourself and your company better. There is one small action you can take that will pop the bubble of urgency and snap you back to lucidity: Take a strategic pause.
A truly urgent profession
To look at this tool in action, let’s contrast our daily illusion of urgency to a place where urgency couldn’t be more real—an emergency room. I did when preparing to present a speech for the Emergency Nurses Association on a unique challenge: How could ER nurses, working in the grip of true urgency—the life-and-death, no-more-chances kind of urgency—make some things more important than others? This heroic job requires a precise emotional stance, being affectionate and connected with patients but not so much so that grief crushes you when things go wrong. I thought white space, the open thoughtful pausing which I define as “time with no assignments,” could help them hit that balance. Would it be possible, among the alarms, pager alerts, vitals tests, and patients in crisis, to take a strategic pause when they needed one? We discovered it was.
During our time together, we focused on identifying moments where they could push through on adrenaline alone, and others where taking a pause was critical—where white space could give them grounding to do their work better. The group charmed me with their creative openness. We realized that a nurse’s elaborate hand-washing routine was plenty of time for a long, cool sip of mental white space. They found that while walking, arms loaded, down a hundred hallways a day, they could allow their bodies to stay in motion while their minds took a small recuperative pause.
Every time I recall this experience, I get a perspective-building reminder of what “urgent” truly means. Is there blood? Is there a pulse? These are questions of urgency. Did my report go out? Does this deck have enough data? Maybe these concerns are not as pressing.
I asked one of the nurses how she maintained emotional equilibrium while triaging when a roomful of injured people and frightened moms was clamoring at the admittance window for her attention. She said, “I pause. I smile. And I say to the whole line of them, ‘one at a time.'”
Categories of urgency
Using the pause to refute the expectations of hallucinated urgency allows us to have authority over our choices. One person, one team, and one interaction at a time, we can shift away from a culture of now and spread the practice of purposeful urgency instead. We take a strategic pause when the river of work flows too fast, and in doing so avoid taking someone else’s definition of urgent and making it our own. Using this thoughtful margin to manage the call of urgency, you’ll also strengthen your crucial skill of impulse control—the ability to stop yourself before taking action on an immediate desire. Then place any item before you in one of three urgency categories:
1. Not time sensitive: It seems obvious but it’s rare for us to acknowledge that a need can be “not time sensitive.” Referencing this category out loud to a team, an assistant, and of course yourself does wonders for everyone’s ability to prioritize. You’ll have to be very explicit to help someone else see that an item is not time sensitive, as they won’t expect this categorization at work.
2. Tactically time sensitive: Here speed to action is tied to a business result. If during your wedge of white space, you identify tactical time sensitivity, this is where your business and your career are furthered by going fast. But even though you’ve identified an item as urgent, urgency is not an emergency—and can still be approached calmly. The more progress you make being reductive, the less drag you’ll have, and the easier it will be to pour on a chosen burst of speed for high-value needs.
3. Emotionally time sensitive: In this category, needs are masquerading as tactically time sensitive but, really, they are not. The compulsion to prioritize them comes from elsewhere. Curiosity, anxiety, worry, control, discomfort with ambiguity, or the hyperactive default pace of the activity can all be part of the mix. Even positive emotions can be the fuel, such as excitement or intrigue. The motivation is more emotional than logical.
Adapted from A Minute to Think by Juliet Funt. Copyright © 2021 by Juliet Funt. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO of the boutique efficiency firm, Juliet Funt Group and author of A Minute to Think. Juliet has worked with several large companies, including Spotify, Abbott, Costco, and PepsiCo. She champions the idea of unburdening workers from busywork so talent and companies can free their potential.