Do you Suffer from the Urgency Addiction? It’s More Common Than you Think

Posted on Aug 18, 2010 | 59 comments


I suffer from the “urgency addiction.”  I know it sounds like one of the falsely humble things like telling somebody in a job interview that your weakness is that you’re too much of a perfectionist.  But the urgency addiction is a bad thing that I’m fortunate enough to get away with.  When I first discovered the concept I found it enlightening.  Here’s what I learned.The concept comes from a Stephen Covey book called “First Things First,” which is a worthwhile book (Wikipedia overview here) but if you haven’t read his seminal book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” you should start with that.  It’s as good as it gets in personal productivity / life reflection.

As individuals we have choices about how we spend our time.  If I asked you whether you want to spend your time on things that are important or unimportant it’s a no-brainer answer.  But if I asked you instead whether you want to work on things that are urgent or not urgent it requires more consideration.

Here’s how I break down the four quadrants (and I’ve put my definitions in here – not Covey’s).

1. The Urgency Addiction – Deep down I’m a procrastinator.  I know that would be surprising to many readers since keeping a blog somehow convinces people that I’m a time management or productivity ninja.  I’m not.  Why do today what I can put off until tomorrow, right?  Actually, I’m exaggerating but not by a tremendous amount.  I have my “hacks” for delivering outputs that are meaningful while managing the daily life more chaotically than you might imagine.

The biggest technique I use to avoid procrastination is commitment.  I make commitments to others and I have such a high sense of honor for not breaking commitments that it forces me into action.  That’s why productivity wasn’t tough for me as a CEO.  As the CEO you have a team that is counting on you and a board that is measuring your performance.  It’s hard to hide.  So I always performed.

But don’t confuse results with how you get there.  And that’s where the urgency addiction comes in.  I have always been good at prioritizing what is important but bad about starting my work early enough.  I was the guy in high school who didn’t have to study early to do well on tests and that continued into college.  It also applies to other parts of my life such as presentations.   I’m a pretty natural public speaker so I can write my presentation the day before and do just fine.

Actually, people with the “urgency addition” thrive on the pressure.  We rise to the occasion as it stirs our creative juices.  There is something about the adrenaline rush of being under time pressure that excites us and teases out our creativity.

We get away with having the urgency addiction BECAUSE we perform well under pressure.  Not everybody does.  I focus my energy on “critical path analysis” so I mentally sketch out what parts of  task I actually need to do early and I don’t let those slip.  So things that have to be done early get done early, but only at the last possible moment that the early task is due.

Example: I was recently in China and had three public appearances.  The first was to do a 5 minute “ignite” presentation – 5 minutes, 15 slides.  I did the outline of the 15 slides on the flight over (after a few beers). I wrote the presentation the morning of my talk, I mentally memorized what to say to each image about an hour before I spoke. And I stepped on stage and delivered what looked like a presentation I’d given 10 times before.

Internally I was a wreck.  I tried to visualize how I was going to hit such a precise presentation where you get 20 seconds per slide and then they get auto forwarded.  I was in my zone and I believed I delivered pretty well.  Anyone who saw me within an hour of speaking, though, must have thought I was Rain Man.  I couldn’t carry on a conversation.

I left that presentation and sat down in a coffee shop.  I had been asked to do the keynote speech at a dinner that night but of course hadn’t written a speech in advance.  I wrote out 3 pages of bullet point notes on paper and delivered a 20-minute speech to a crowd of entrepreneurs (which included the Minister of Technology for China).  I didn’t socialize with anybody as we walked into the room.  I couldn’t.  I accomplished the results but I certainly didn’t get there in style.

I tell this story to give you a sense of the urgency addiction in action: procrastination meets deadlines meets embarrassment if you suck = creativity and peak performance.

[As an aside, if you want a sense of the GOAP Asia trip check out this wonderful 3 minute video of Christine Lu.  I promise you'll enjoy it.  Another 3 minute version with Dave McClure on the same topic. If you only have time for 1 watch the first, we've all seen Dave ;-) but both are fun.]

Covey covers all of the problems that the urgency addiction brings in his book.  You retain less knowledge.  You take short cuts.  You make too many trade-offs.  You suffer too many internal stresses.  I haven’t read the book in years so I don’t remember the whole chapter.  But this book made the problem so clear to me that I do try at times and for certain tasks to force myself to do parts of the task early to avoid the mad rush.

It seems that we should want to do things that are both important & urgent.  After all – that’s what is on our to-do lists with the AAA next to it and a circle around it.  The obvious answer on reflection is that we should want to do things that are important and not (yet) urgent.

2. Zone of Effectiveness – The examples that Covey talks about here are things like exercise and planning.  They can’t be rushed.  If you can carve out some time during your day to not sit in meetings but instead to dedicate to thinking about the longer-term, strategic initiatives that are important to you then you’ll do bigger things in life.

Here’s an example where good behavior leads to higher results.  I founded a mentorship group called Launchpad LA.  It didn’t come out of nowhere.  I was on vacation in Santa Barbara two years ago with my wife and I was reflecting on what I had learned in my first year in LA and in VC.  I though to myself, “too many young entrepreneurs in LA seem to feel pressured by NorCal VCs to move to the Bay Area.  I hear it all the time.  Yet in LA we have hugely successful entrepreneurs who have built big companies like Overture, CitySearch, MySpace, TicketMaster.com, LowerMyBills, Commission Junction, eHarmony and on and on.

We have amazing large companies that are an important part of the future of the Internet such as Disney, Warner, Fox, Universal, etc.  The thing I need to do is figure a way to tie all this together and we can create a sustainable ecosystem where people see huge advantages in being located here.”

So I decided to create a mentorship organization where first time entrepreneurs could spend time with senior execs, seasoned entrepreneurs and VCs.  I thought through the steps:

  1. Get a class of interesting companies
  2. Get VCs to agree to join
  3. Figure out a way to finance it
  4. Get some seasoned entrepreneurs to come

I knew I couldn’t build the perfect “mentorship product” over night but I knew that MVP meant just getting the first version launched.  And we’ve slowly built it since then.

I use this story because big initiatives like this take planning.  And I spent time with Dena Cook, Adam Lilling and Dana Settle this morning discussing how we’re going to take our events to the next level in September & October.  I visualized.  We debated.  We planned.  It’s not urgent yet.  I’m so much more productive when I’m in this mode.

I think big, audacious thoughts that require planning come from down time. I almost always plan annual objectives and plot out my future when on vacation. Having the time to think is important.  I wonder if companies ought to have senior executives spend a paid week away every year with the only goal, “to think about what major initiatives they want to enact in the next year.”  Most corporate retreats are spent doing busy activities and don’t leave enough time for reflection.

3. Responsive Low Hanging Fruit – I view email in the category of urgent but not (always) important.  Some of it is important, no doubt.  But much of it isn’t.  It’s mostly other people adding tasks to your to-do list without your consent and expecting timely completion or responses.  Sounds harsh but when you think about it that’s what email really is.  I heard that Jeremiah Owyang said that sometimes you need to “pay yourself first” as in do things that you want to do (blog, exercise, do public speaking, plan events, whatever) before always being responsive or reactive to the demands of other people.

I used to be a “respond to 100% of emails” guy but I simply can’t keep up.  I try my best but am increasingly comfortable that sometimes it’s just going to slip.  At volume I don’t see any other way.  Obviously you need to dedicate some of your time to email and other less important but urgent (as defined by somebody else who is waiting for your input) tasks.  Just don’t live in this quadrant or you’ll never do anything meaningful.

4. Time Suck – And the pejoratively named “time suck” quadrant of things that are neither important nor urgent.  Here we’re into Angry Birds, MineSweeper, BrickBreaker or YouTube territory.  I don’t know – sometimes I just need to veg out.  So I don’t let myself get too bummed out by “time suck” time.

Sometimes the times where I have deep thoughts about what is going on with the Internet is when I give myself 2 hours to just play around with shite for a bit.  Try random products, play random games or send funny Tweets. The obvious answer is that you need to time box this stuff.  Obviously some people get carried away with this stuff or companies like Zynga wouldn’t be as big as it is today.

Anyway, I have no magic pills for controlling the urgency addiction but recognizing the pattern in myself was an important part of both trying to move to the non-urgent quadrant more and knowing that for some things like public speaking I’m just likely to continue to channel my urgent energies and be Ok with that.

How about you?  Urgency addiction anyone?

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    I remember when I first accidentally happened on this blog. Serendipity. I relate very closely to lots of the things in here, so I end up passing lots of the articles along to my boss so she has a chance to better understand me.

    Check out some of the past articles. There is a treasure trove here.

  • http://twitter.com/IBAssociate Entreprenuer TechIB

    Thanks, actually applying for conferences has been the best way to get the ball rolling when we feel stuck or de-motivated.

  • http://www.yourversion.com Dan Olsen

    Mark,
    Great post! (found it using http://yourversion.com). In the age of digital information, the demands on our time are increasingly exceeding the supply. I especially like the personal examples you shared. Nice meeting you at Twiistup.

  • http://www.twitter.com/biggiesu Mike Su

    Ha! I was reading the intro to this post when you start to out yourself as a procrastinator, and I thought to myself, “I guess like that time he started writing the keynote in Shanghai at our office” and then kept reading and couldn't help but chuckle a bit to myself when you used it as an example. Did turn out well though!

  • http://twitter.com/davestone Dave Stone

    Saw this & thought it was apt… John Cleese on creativity: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGt3-fxOvug

  • http://www.known.com Cheryl C. Cigan

    Hi Mark!

    So ironic. I just finished a free report about ways to stop being the victim of others' urgency addictions. I've developed a system for professionals who bill for their time. It's beginning to cost businesses a lot in terms of lost productivity – not to mention employers financing an hour of payroll on employees who admittedly spend time on social sites and other personal matters while at work. I thought all this technology was supposed to help us!

    I recognized me immediately in your description of an urgency addict (actually I've known this most of my life!). I just finished re-reading First Things First so Covey's quadrants are still fresh in my mind. Like you, I love the adrenaline rush. The crash is tough though!

    Glad I found your blog.

    Cheryl C. Cigan
    known.com

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

    I thrive on the pressure of urgency – “procrastination” gets a bad rap. But there are some things you absolutely cannot cut corners on to do last minute – due diligence, for one.

    I have zero tolerance for time sucks during business hours when I'm relying on others to deliver.

    Zones of effectiveness – I find mine when I am in a situation in which I am unavoidably unable to attend to low-hanging fruit or when my urgent matters list is all crossed off (for the moment). Like on the subway, the airplane, lunch at desk, in the shower. Introspection and longer-term blue-skying is valuable and should be incorporated into every day in some way – but often it cannot be forced or scheduled.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5ZMJ27KRVEADK6T73X62WY3UOU Todd

    Good article. I only have one comment on this part:

    “Actually, people with the “urgency addition” thrive on the pressure. We rise to the occasion as it stirs our creative juices. There is something about the adrenaline rush of being under time pressure that excites us and teases out our creativity.”

    There have been quite a few studies recently that have shown that time pressure makes most people less creative and if it is done continuously it destroys motivation. While it may work for some, a lot of people who read this will perpetuate the management anti-pattern of “they won't get it done unless they are under pressure”.

  • http://bbbart.myid.net/ Bart Van Loon

    This is great. I've never seen my own diagnosis of the Urgency Addiction written out so clearly before. Quite an enlightening read.

    Thanks!