What is it that makes urgency so attractive?

One of the most famous (and well-used) time management tools is Stephen Covey’s urgent/important matrix, in which:

URGENT = something which requires immediate or short-term attention.

IMPORTANT = something which contributes to results in line with your business goals.

Using these definitions, any task or project, request or demand, or waste of time, can be sorted into one of the following categories:

  • Urgent and important
  • Urgent but not important
  • Important but not urgent
  • Not important and not urgent

The basic idea is to focus on what’s important rather than that which simply demands our attention. But simple as that is, we find it difficult. Why? Why are we so often unable to resist urgency?

Reasons we can be addicted to urgency

Much of the reasoning lies in the fact that urgent tasks are often of short-term significance, they may not make such a big difference in the long run but they often carry an immediate pay-off (“Well done! Another crisis averted!”). Whereas those longer-term items will contribute to the future but carry little in the way of a feelgood factor. This is basic Pavlovian response to a promised reward. Other factors at play, include:

  1. Urgency must be handled – There’s no denying this, if you’re faced with a crisis, it can’t be ignored, that’s implicit in the word ‘crisis’. But not every crisis must be handled by you.
  2. Urgency can be fun – Let’s be honest, when the head is buzzing with too much to achieve in too little time, it’s a rush; the adrenaline is flowing and we feel good. Then afterwards, when we almost certainly haven’t burnt off that adrenaline with physical activity (no fight, no flight, just sitting at the desk dealing with urgency) the body experiences a dip. How do we handle that? Seek out another situation that’ll get us revved up again.
  3. Urgency breeds urgency – Or to put it another way, urgency is addictive. When you have people who are good at urgency, who are at their best when faced with urgency (maybe they’ve even been promoted based on the urgencies they’ve successfully handled) then they’re geared to go looking for urgency. They seek it out because it’s what they’re good at. That’s understandable but it doesn’t mean it’s what the business needs.
  4. Urgency means immediate gratification – The rewards of a successfully dealt-with urgent situation are now. First, an urgent success often appears more impressive in the moment than an important success (important work usually pays off down the line). Second, if we do manage to pull it off, we’re probably going to feel pretty good about it (successfully-handled urgency feeds the ego).

Yes, urgent tasks can be very necessary (maybe the building’s on fire; maybe the books need to balance before everyone goes home for the day…) but most are not; most are some type of distraction from the future-oriented important tasks that will take care of your business.


If you’re interested in improving your time management, check out our FREE 45-minute Time and Priority Management webinar on 8th January; or give us a call on 01582 463460 – we’re here to help!

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