False Urgency Is The Villain of Modern Life — Here’s Why

November 14, 2023
January 16, 2023

Written by Marcianne Gaab

How do you spend your 24 hours? Are you more of a carpe diem or a carpe noctem type of person? It’s not an easy question to answer, but we can all somehow agree that 24 hours is not enough for one day. “So much to do, so little time,” as they say.

The modern world moves at an unimaginable speed. Every minute, a new trend or task emerges — whether it’s a fresh release from a brand or a 20-page report placed on your desk. We feel compelled to keep up (or even stay ahead) with these updates to the point where falling behind is no longer an option.

Author John Kotter says that engaging in such behavior fosters a false sense of urgency. Driven by external pressure, anxiety, and fear, false urgency causes us to prioritize one thing over the other regardless of their significance and impact. Accomplishing tasks or staying in the loop with trends give a feeling of satisfaction but at what cost?

On running circles around the workplace

Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” Well, for every person who's been in the workplace, hell is deadlines. And more often than not, it is these types of external pressures that catalyze a false sense of urgency.

As Taylor mentioned in a Deep Stretch episode, many employees are always on the go because most workplace cultures incentivize speed and productivity. Complacency is frowned upon, while being busy and occupied at all times is seen as the epitome of productivity.

The 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada is a classic portrayal of how this is evident in the workplace. There’s a scene where the protagonist, Andy (Anne Hathaway), finally gets time off and has dinner with her dad. But not even before they get started, Andy’s boss Miranda (Meryl Streep) calls to tell her that her flight was canceled and needs to get on a new one ASAP. Their dinner is cut short and Andy frantically makes calls to send her boss home, fearing that failure to do so would get her the chop.

False urgency can also be contagious, especially when working with members of a team. The collective adrenaline rush it provokes is effective in creating action; but in reality, all these desperate attempts to beat the clock ultimately diminish the quality of work being done. So, at the end of the day, the cycle is never truly broken: unsatisfactory outputs result in intense pressure that merely manifests as fear- or anxiety-motivated activity among workers.

While this hustle culture benefits proprietors, Kotter adds that the resulting flurry of activity created by false urgency is less beneficial and more harmful than complacency because it “drains needed energy in activity and not productivity.” It leaves workers overwhelmed and exhausted rather than fulfilled, which is antithetical to the purpose of workplaces as a space for self-actualization.

But most of all, it forces one to sacrifice their personal time over work. Spoiler alert: Andy wasn’t able to get Miranda a plane or a jet, but she was let off the hook. Those failed phone calls and speeding through New York City did not cost Andy her job, but it did cost her some quality time with her father. In our context, this could mean missing out on a friend’s birthday, canceling a weekend trip, or not being able to enjoy a warm bubble bath at home.

On lightning deals and disappearing stories

False urgency may be prevalent in the workplace but it comes in many forms — so much closer and common than you think.

Grab your phone and scroll through your notifications. If you’re someone who spends a lot of time online, then there’s a high chance your phone is flooded with notifications about flash sales or social media updates. But why is it that, no matter how many times we *try* to ignore them, we still end up clicking that post or buying that product?

It all lies in the root of our motivations as human beings. The self-determination theory suggests that we feel more driven and satisfied if our need for relatedness is fulfilled. Otherwise, we develop the fear of missing out (or simply, FOMO).

FOMO is the bane of our existence and a manifestation of false urgency. Thanks to the internet, we can easily find out what other people in the world are doing in real-time. And there’s always a possibility that we miss some updates due to the sheer amount that gets delivered versus the short amount of time we can spare. Yet, we find it difficult to accept that inevitability because the desire to stay relevant and feel exclusive is greater, leaving us with no option but to give in to external pressures.

Take the TV series Wednesday as an example. When it came out, anyone and everyone with a Netflix account was watching it. The “What would Wednesday do?” trend and Jenna Ortega’s dance were all over the internet. Our inner FOMO tells us that it is imperative for us to watch it, or else we’d be out of the loop in conversations for the next few weeks. It then creates a false sense of urgency to binge watch all 8 episodes, regardless if we’re even mildly interested in The Addams Family or Tim Burton’s films.

The same concept applies with flash sales and limited offers. Promos like “Buy two sneakers and get 30% off on shipping” or “70% off on all products ‘til midnight” are admittedly too good to pass up. But this false scarcity tactic is similar to what false urgency elicits from people — the illusion of not having enough time to purchase an item. Oftentimes, we rationalize these purchases as needs rather than impulsive buys that inevitably get discarded or collect dust over time.

Urgent is not always important, and vice versa

Research has shown that urgency plays a significant part in impulsive and risky behavior. This negative emotional state diverts our time, energy, and money into something (or someone) that has little to no value. Adhering to this counterproductive mindset would initiate a series of misplaced priorities and disorganized decisions in the long run that would give us nothing but undue stress.

So, therein lies the question: where exactly do we draw the line between true urgency and false urgency? This is a question that former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower knew all too well.

The Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by author Stephen Covey, is a framework that helps one to avoid falling into the “urgency trap” and know the difference between urgent and important tasks.

(Photo from Todoist)
  • The first quadrant contains urgent and important tasks with set deadlines or events which are beyond our control but demand immediate action. This could be a flood in your kitchen, a cut on your leg, or a credit card bill due the next day.
  • The second quadrant contains important tasks but do not necessarily require your immediate attention. Rather, you can opt to schedule these to later times or dates. This can include doing your laundry, meeting your friends, or bringing your pet to the groomer.
  • The third quadrant contains tasks with specific deadlines and need immediate action but not necessarily yours. For example, responding to emails, feeding your pets, or even some meetings can be assigned to someone else who is just as capable and knowledgeable about it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with various interruptions and distractions that will take a huge chunk of your time.
  • The fourth quadrant contains tasks that should be the least priority, as they don’t contribute to your long-term progress and will only end up wasting your valuable time. Excessive scrolling on social media sites, playing games, or binge-watching on Netflix give immediate satisfaction, but they should be done in moderation or during actual leisure time.

Moral of the story: there IS time. There are numerous ways by which we can direct our energy, attention, and time without feeling guilty for not doing enough. The moment we spend our time putting out fires all day is the point where we rob ourselves of anything resembling a normal life.

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