It’s Urgent!! - The Dangers of Constant Urgency
“I really do my best under pressure. I love that adrenaline rush. When I don’t feel it, I feel bored. I don’t really feel like I’m working unless there’s an urgent deadline.”
A woman attorney recently expressed these sentiments to me. Have you heard yourself say or think something similar?
Urgency is the norm in legal practice. You are expected to overwork and probably have come to expect yourself to be constantly busy. These days, the more urgent the project the more important it seems to us as well as to others.
There is a “rush” that accompanies addressing urgent issues. Adrenaline is a source of energy - as it rushes through your blood stream you feel exhilarated. And every time you effectively solve a crisis you feel successful, competent and valued. Urgency can provide a great temporary high.
But when you reach the point where you believe you’re at your best when you work under this much pressure, or find that you’re bored when you’re not experiencing an adrenaline rush, then you’ve probably headed for trouble.
THE DANGERS OF CONSTANT URGENCY
1. Chronic Hyperarousal and Stress-Related Illness When you’re running on adrenaline all the time your body is in a constant state of distress. You’re actually in a state of physiological hyperarousal. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are produced; your heart, respiration rates and blood pressure are elevated. Your immune system is compromised. This kind of chronic stress puts you at risk for all kinds of stress-related problems including heart disease, hypertension, headaches as well as all the risks associated with an inefficiently functioning immune system.
2. Compromised Effectiveness Although you may believe you are at your best under pressure, this is a physiological impossibility. You simply cannot be thorough, clear-thinking, imaginative, optimally effective or efficient when you are in a state of hyperarousal. In fact, this is when you are most likely to make those mistakes that can result in malpractice issues.
3. Damage to Important Relationships When faced with an urgent task, we tend to push everything else aside. How often have you sacrificed time with important people in your life in order to handle a crisis? When we disappoint the people we love in order to deal with a work emergency, we expect them to understand. We explain that we just can’t help it. But over time, these relationships become eroded. There’s a limit to how much disappointment our friends, lovers, spouses or children can tolerate before the relationship begins to deteriorate.
4. Losing Control Of Your Life Perpetually putting out fires leads to feeling like your life is out of control. And in many ways, it is. You can become a slave to billable hours, the demands of clients, the expectations of partners. After a while, your career can feel like a runaway train, pulling you along at terrific speed, giving you no time to decide if you really want to go down this track.
5. Urgency Addiction When your life is controlled by urgency, it’s unlikely that you’re spending much time doing other things that restore you. Your personal needs get submerged. It’s no wonder the only “high” you experience is the one you feel when you’re under pressure at work. Once you’re in the habit of neglecting other needs and sources of enjoyment, your only reliable source of excitement becomes this adrenaline rush.
As Stephen Covey notes, “Urgency addiction is a self- destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs.” (1)
YOUR URGENCY MANAGEMENT “TOOL KIT”
Responding to urgency is rewarded in legal practice. It is normative in the culture of most law firms. People seek the help of attorneys because they are experiencing some sort of crisis - and they expect you to solve it. So urgent demands are not going to disappear.
As an attorney and a goal-oriented person it’s natural for you to think that you can set a specific, achievable goal of reducing urgency or regaining control. It’s appealing to think that you can find a formula that allows you to balance your life.
But life balance isn’t a goal; it’s a process. More importantly, it won’t happen over night. And trying to change everything immediately just gives you one more urgent thing to do. So consider the suggestions I offer; take one small step at a time. Most importantly, keep in mind that balance isn’t something you do. It’s like riding a bicycle - it requires constant readjustment.
1. Urgency vs. Importance
Stephen Covey (2) introduced the four quadrant box of urgency and importance as a means of increasing effectiveness and life balance.
Importance is defined as your most important goals; the priorities that give your life meaning.
Urgency refers to how quickly action is required. A ringing phone is a simple example of urgency.
Draw a fox with importance along the horizontal and urgency along the vertical lines. Divide your box into four equal parts. The top left quadrant is the high importance, high urgency box. The top right part is the low importance, high urgency quadrant. The bottom left section is the high importance, low urgency quadrant, and the bottom right box in the low importance, low urgency quadrant.
You’ll probably discover that much of your time is spent in high urgency quadrants, some of it important, too much of it unimportant. To lead a life of optimal effectiveness and satisfaction, you need to spend your time in the high importance, low urgency quadrant.
2. Use Importance as the Foundation of Time Management Typical approaches to time-management involve making “to-do” lists. Over and over, women attorneys complain to me that their “to-do” lists tyrannize them. They can’t possibly finish everything on the list in the allotted time. When this method fails, you can feel very discouraged.
The problem with “to-do” lists is that they keep us focused on prioritizing the urgent.
It is far more important to clarify what is important. This is the first step in any truly effective time- management strategy.
3. Clarify What’s Most Important
What if you articulated clearly what is most important to you and revisited this list weekly?
If you think there’s a chance this might make a difference in your life, then try writing down what is most important to you.
Consider all of your life roles - lawyer, parent, spouse, daughter, friend, community member - whatever fits your particular circumstance. What are your most important goals for each of your life roles?
4. Assess Whether You’re Spending Your Time Doing What’s Important
Compare how you’ve been spending your time to how you would spend it if you were doing what is most important to you. If there are glaring discrepancies, you have your first clues about things you need to change to make your life more balanced and satisfying.
Making this comparison is only a beginning. It does not mean you have to change everything at once or that you’ve been doing everything wrong. You are simply a very competent person trying to live a life in a culture and profession that discourages life balance. Greater balance and control are possible if you approach them in small, intentional steps.
5. Visualize Alternatives
Try visualizing yourself facing a typical crisis and handling it in a completely different way. Be irreverent, outrageous - remember it’s only a fantasy. The point is to begin to realize there are alternatives.
6. Assess True Urgency
Keep in mind that not everything that demands your immediate attention is really urgent. Many ostensibly urgent demands can wait. Some deadlines are arbitrary or artificial and some are intended to assert power or intimidate you. Many deadlines can be changed by attorneys, clients or courts.
Try remembering a time when you didn’t respond to an urgent demand - that is, you did the work but rejected the time table. Did disaster ensue?
7. Compare Urgent Demands To Your List of Priorities
Keep a list of what’s most important to you in a visible place. Every time you’re presented with an urgent demand, compare it to your list. Will accepting the supposed urgency contribute to your highest priority goals? If not, is this task truly urgent - if you don’t meet the deadline, is a catastrophe really likely to occur? If not, what are your options.
Can you soothe the person making the demand so that he or she can see their problem will be solved even if you change the deadline? Can you show the person making the demand that she or he will benefit even more if the time-demands of the task are changed?
Use the concept of triage as a frame of reference. Everyone goes to the ER believing that their situation is urgent. But the doctors don’t allow the patients to define urgency. Patients with life-threatening problems are attended to first. Intermediate solutions are provided to ease distress for others who can wait for more thorough solutions. People whose health concerns can wait without harm to them simply have to wait. This analogy, though limited, is still useful.
9. Anticipate Urgency
Try setting aside a specific time each day for dealing with urgent matters. This helps reduce some of the stress of urgency and allows you to work on what’s important without interruption.
10. Make Small Reductions in Time Spent on Urgent Demands
Of course, genuine emergencies will still crop up. But if you can reduce the amount of time you spend doing urgent but unimportant things by even 10%, you’re already regaining more control over your life, making conscious choices and reducing the kind of stress that creates serious health risks.
11. Consider How a Coach Can Help
A professional and personal coach may be able to help you clarify what is most important to you. She can help you craft a plan that allows you to spend more time on what is important but not urgent, thereby increasing your sense of personal control and satisfaction. Many women attorneys find that a coach’s support is an invaluable resource in meeting this challenge.
“Characteristics of successful women include the fact that they: realize the importance of a mentor or coach, know how to increase their visibility, know how to develop an effective network, have learned to communicate effectively, to balance work and home, to take smart risks, and understand the politics of their various organizations.” (3)