The urgency spiral is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that keeps people stuck in urgency mode. These 5 questions will help you free yourself from it.

I was in an email conversation with a Creative Giant who was discussing how moving to the UK from Chicago displaced a lot of her projects but gave her new insights about how she got stuff done. She mentioned this about firefighting:

Oddly enough, being in firefighting mode was in some ways helpful, as I eliminated a lot of distractions and as a result got some important projects done. Now I know what I have to do next, and the trick is to plan it and do it — which is where the momentum planners come in handy! When I was just trying to keep my head above water, I didn’t use them — it’s when my day is no longer ruled by the urgent stuff that I need to make an effort to focus.

This indirectly highlights one of the challenges people have with planning (and our planners): urgency minimizes the need for holistic planning simply because whatever’s urgent requires our focus and capabilities to get done. If something’s burning, you don’t need to pull out a planner and productivity app to figure out what needs to be done, who all is involved, what success looks like, and so on. You just put the fire out, immediately.

Since our society is ruled by urgency, we have become really good at living, working, and thinking reactively. It’s a good day when we’re only reacting to one urgent thing, though, so we’ve also become good at tending to multiple urgencies at once. We’re like the cat in the gif below:

We’re multi-tasking, multi-project juggling masters of the now. Rinse, repeat.

No mind that our bodies suffer. No mind that our hearts suffer. No mind that our relationships suffer. No mind that our spirits suffer.

There’s no time to worry about that stuff in the deluge of urgency. Plus, taking time out for yourself is incredibly selfish; people need you to do something right now.

But to worry about something, you have to be aware that there’s a problem. To be aware of the problem requires a pause and reflection that, again, we don’t have time for. We don’t stop before we have to.

I wish I were being hyperbolic about where we are or that perhaps I’m seeing a non-representative sample of people, but my hunch is that the people I’m seeing know the tyranny of the urgent isn’t working for them.

Starting the habit of proactive, adaptive planning thus isn’t just a matter of knowing how to do things like deciding which projects matter most, setting good goals, chunking projects down, writing good action items, and getting a project through the almost-done-but-can-easily-get-stuck zone before it’s finished. These are all important skillsets to continually practice, for sure, but the reality is that people only feel worse when they know they have the skills they need but seem unable to apply them.

Breaking Free from the Urgency Spiral Requires Continual Effort

Cultivating the habit of planning for success also depends on us altering the way we exist in the world and realizing to what degree we’re feeding the fires we’re continually rushing to put out. Because we have no time, we don’t make time to make time and are thus further behind and don’t have time. Because we’re treating our bodies merely like head transportation vehicles, our energy flags and our bodies hurt, creating the situation where we don’t have the energy and vitality to exercise and eat better or just succumb to decision fatigue because we don’t have the energy and vitality. Because we have no boundaries, we’re over-taxed and can’t muster the courage to set or renegotiate boundaries.

We thus get caught in a downward urgency spiral that’s maintained by self-reinforcing feedback loops. Reversing or interrupting a self-reinforcing feedback loop is considerably harder than just stopping one thing on one day, as the feedback loops in the system create tie-ins that keep the system going. It requires change on multiple items through time.

The good news is that positive feedback loops work the same way. Good habits lead to good outcomes that reinforce the good habits. Tending to relationships lead to better relationships that are more nourishing and easier to tend to. And so on.

Though positive and negative spirals work the same way, it can be more challenging to reverse or interrupt a negative spiral because part of the system comes from our relationships with other people. People who want to quit smoking struggle partly because they likely have friends who smoke; giving up smoking is thus giving up their friends. Because so many people expect urgent communication, we’re pressured to keep up. Major diet changes affect relationships with friends given how many of our social activities center around foods that often aren’t healthy.

How Do We Break the Urgency Spiral While Still Channeling Focused Energy?

Something I’ve been exploring over the last few years is how to channel the clarity and sense of purpose we get from firefighting scenarios (“mission mode”) into future-building activities. This isn’t one of those theoretical, “how can I figure this out for other people?” explorations — I need to figure it out for myself. I’m a genius in a crisis or when my back is up against a wall. I’ve not been as effective and prolific when the coast is clear, even when I’ve deliberately and effectively got out of the urgency cycle long enough to recover and reset.

The planning methodologies I use and share help considerably at identifying where I want things to go and how to get there, but that focus, performance, and drive I get when in mission mode is often the missing piece. I’ve gotten better over the last few years, but I’ve still got a ways to go, and I’m open to the possibility that the positive spirals I’ve been cultivating haven’t clearly offset the persistent negative spirals that I’m feeding (directly or indirectly) in other ways.

I’m sharing all this just in case you’re also at the point where you realize your head has what it needs, but your heart and hands haven’t gotten on board to the same degree. Mindsets and heartsets always trump skillsets; make sure you’re feeding what actually needs to grow.

So I don’t leave you with a cliffhanger, here are some questions to ponder if you’re wanting to break free from the urgency spiral:

  1. What’s underneath the patterns and habits that keep you in the urgency spiral?
  2. What do you need to give yourself permission to let go of beliefs and stories that aren’t serving you? (Is it time to leave the canoe behind?)
  3. What would you do differently if you knew that you’re modeling the urgency spiral to someone you love?
  4. What would you do differently if you believed you were already competent, worthy, and deserving of love and success?
  5. Who in your life is modeling and reinforcing the urgency spiral for you and how might you address it?

Here’s to building your positive spirals.

Call to Action

If you’re ready to move beyond the perennial urgency of today and start building a better tomorrow, click here to get free tools, worksheets, and content that’ll help you finish what matters most.

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  • Charlie Gilkey

    Author, Speaker, Business Strategist, Coach

    Charlie Gilkey helps people start finish the stuff that matters. He's the founder of Productive Flourishing, author of the forthcoming Start Finishing and The Small Business Lifecycle, and host of the Productive Flourishing podcast. Prior to starting Productive Flourishing, Charlie was a Joint Force Military Logistics Coordinator while simultaneously pursuing a PhD in Philosophy. He lives with his wife, Angela, in Portland, Oregon.