Escaping the Urgency Trap

We are in such a rush these days. We quickly move from one meeting to another, speed-read through emails and reply in a similar reactive fashion in order to squeeze in as many pieces of communication as possible before the end of the working day. Only to run out the door for school pick up, football drop off and other social activities. Everything seems urgent. Everything is done in a rush. Exhausting right?

What has changed?

In our personal and business lives, urgency has massively increased in the last two decades. Technology has enabled us to communicate faster and easier across different geographies. How exciting was the introduction of emails in the 90s? Everyone was saying: ‘Emails will save us so much time’. And when most of us shifted to online platforms during 2020, we realised, we don’t even have to be in the same physical space to meet with our teams; we just use MS Teams and Slack.

What is happening right now?

But when I speak to leaders, they tell me that they are exhausted and burnt out. Everyone feels like they are simply reacting to emails, instant messages and online chats, and they don’t have time to slow down, think and create. Everything is more urgent than the next.

A friend of mine, who works for a large PR firm, was on the phone with me the other night. She described her day as a long string of online meetings with clients and peers without hardly any break and that her day to create concepts starts at 6pm. But of course, by that time, she is tired with little creative brain capacity left to do the real work. She asked me, ‘Why has everything become so urgent? I feel like I am constantly putting out fires and everyone needs an answer from me that simply cannot seem to wait’.

The 3 Work Zones

You can see how this kind of working in a reactive haze of deadlines and last-minute meetings is neither sustainable, nor productive. I am not saying that we shouldn’t have any urgency. In fact, urgency helps us deliver projects on time and creates friction that is sometimes necessary for us or our teams to move forward. It’s not about inverting urgency; it’s about finding the right kind of urgency that helps us be more productive.

In his book ‘Urgent’ Dermot Crowley describes 3 zones in which we operate:

      1. Reactive

      2. Active

      3. Inactive

He explains that in the Reactive Zone we experience acute urgency. This is helpful if it doesn’t happen too often, it helps create traction and momentum. But if we stay in the Reactive Zone for too long, like my friend at the PR firm, it turns into what Crowley calls Acute and Chronic Urgency, which results in stress and burnout.

When we look at the other extreme, the Inactive Zone, we experience an absent urgency which leads to inaction, procrastination and frustration. If you notice you or your people are in this zone, you need to create traction and increase urgency otherwise, projects stall and nothing gets done.

‘The best work is done in the Active Zone. Here is where Productive Urgency happens. It’s the ‘Goldilocks Zone’, not too reactive, not too inactive, just right.’ – Dermot Crowley.

In the Active Zone there is enough urgency to be productive but without the need for your team members to constantly react and put out fires. It makes them having goals and realistic deadlines with ample time to create, reflect, correct and deliver.

Why is productive urgency important?

When we constantly react and rush, we simply don’t do our best work. Most of us are knowledge workers where we have to come up with solutions, think through complex issues and create and innovate. Unproductive urgency or acute urgency results in mistakes and unnecessary rework, which is an inefficient use of time. It shows up in the form of subpar quality and makes us less competitive. When we stay in the Reactive Zone, it will most likely lead to increased stress and people will leave their job or the organisation.

What can I do as a team leader?

Become aware of the different zones your people operate in and navigate through the zone, applying just enough urgency to keep momentum but make sure your teams are in the Active Zone most of the time. Help them to structure their workdays (importance vs. urgent) and weeks, how to work towards deadlines and how to create space for Deep Work, uninterrupted time to use the full capacity of your cognitive brain to create and innovate. Check out this past blog about focussing without distraction.

Check in with your team members regularly without micro-managing them. Give them the freedom to organise their own work but create open conversations and trust so that you can pick up on the shift into unproductive zones.

How can I increase productive urgency for myself?

Differentiate between Urgency and Importance. Stephen Covey repackaged the so-called Eisenhower Matrix in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ to avoid the urgency trap (mere urgency). The prioritisation framework looks like this:


Ask yourself:

      1. Was this urgent for me?

      2. Was this important to me?

Be careful what you deem as urgent. Research has found that we tend to have an ‘urgency bias’ and that most tasks merely seem urgent, whereas the payoff for important tasks is often greater for us. Focussing too much on urgent tasks also makes us seem busy but ask yourself how productive this zone is for you.

Use this framework to make yourself shift more tasks into ‘not urgent/important’ and ‘urgent/not important’ rather than letting people put tasks into your reactive zone ‘urgent/important’. Negotiate time and resources with clients and managers to avoid the urgency trap and use Productive Urgency for a more balanced work life where you can work without stress and overwhelm and increase productivity. Create an awareness of when you are falling into the urgency trap and ask yourself, ‘Is it really urgent or merely urgent?’

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Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert