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How to Use a Sense of Urgency to Do What Actually Matters

Harness your motivation to tend to "urgent" matters as a way to achieve goals.

Key points

  • The "mere urgency effect" makes people prioritize urgent tasks over more important ones.
  • The human inclination to prioritize tasks with shorter time limits can lead to a lack of progress in the long term.
  • One way to use the "mere urgency effect" to one's advantage is to create deadlines for tasks that are hard to start.

How many times have you purchased something you didn't need because there was a time-limited sale happening or gone to a store you weren't thinking about until you noticed your coupon was about to expire? Marketers have long been aware that making us feel a sense of urgency (and scarcity of a special deal) is a great way to get us to shell over our money.

When we feel the weight of a ticking clock, something switches on inside of us that makes us lock in with laser focus. Suddenly, we feel in our bones that a task must be completed by a certain time, to the detriment of other potentially more important ones. You might have felt this the last time you received an email or a text message. I know I fall victim to the obsessive urge to respond immediately... and this is what something that we perceive to be urgent does to us. It urges us to act upon it like a siren beckoning Odysseus to heed its haunting song and come a little closer to those rocky shores that definitely won't wreck one's ship. Why are we so tempted by urgency?

We can add something to the encyclopedia brimming with cognitive biases that we irrational humans engage in: a term that researchers have coined "the mere urgency effect." In 2018, a study showed that people tended to complete time-sensitive tasks first rather than tasks that were not as time-sensitive but were more important.1 The researchers were able to rule out reasons why people may choose to prioritize urgent tasks over more important ones such as wanting to do something that is easier, preferring an immediate reward, or having a thought-out plan of doing the urgent task first before moving onto the important task, to show that people chose the urgent task merely because they felt they had to beat an imaginary deadline. The study's authors further explained that when people are vividly aware that they have a limited amount of time to complete something, they tend to focus more on the window of time they have to finish the task rather than on the actual payoffs or benefits they are going to get from completing the task.

So what is the problem with this human inclination to do things that feel urgent? If we spend our day running around in circles, at the end of the day, it can feel like we were really busy and surely depleted, but we can also find ourselves right back where we started.

How to Hack Urgency

  1. Compare the payoffs of each task. The first step is to get clear on what makes the most sense for you to work on; otherwise, it is too easy to be derailed by other people's wants and needs. Focusing on the payoffs you will receive from each task can help you make better decisions. You can ask yourself questions like, "What if I wait to do X or don't do it at all?" If X = look up the movie in which Adam Driver's character says, "Let's just not know" because it's bothering me, the answer might be, "Absolutely nothing terrible will happen and I will probably avoid going down a time rabbit hole from which I will never return." If X = choose a wedding venue, the answer might be, "I might end up getting married in 2025 on a Wednesday morning at Chuck E. Cheese because that's what will be available."
  2. Use deadlines to spark urgency. We know that our brains respond to urgency, so instead of fighting against ourselves, we can harness this latent motivation and use it to get things done. If you are struggling to start (or finish) a dreadful task, try setting a timer to limit how long you will allow yourself to complete the task. You can also pick a smaller chunk of the task to work on, also using a timer, and then continue using this strategy for each subsequent chunk of the task to keep your motivation and sense of progress elevated. Use a combination of hourly, daily, and weekly deadlines to keep yourself on track when working on larger projects.
  3. Alternate your deadlines with breaks. Working with a sense of urgency can unearth productivity you did not know existed before but it can also be draining if done for too long without breaks. Try working in spurts where you set a deadline for yourself to get something done by a certain time, take a break to do something else until you feel recharged, and then set another deadline for the next task. Rinse and repeat. You may accomplish more in an hour and a half using a deadline than you would have the whole day without a sense of urgency, leaving you able to relax the rest of the day guilt-free.

The next time something feels urgent, ask yourself, "Says who?"

The next time you need to finish something that is actually important, tell yourself, "I need to (and will) do this before [chosen time]" and hold yourself to it like it's an urgent matter that must be tended to.

Hopefully, these tips help you take charge of how you are spending your time by choosing what you make urgent and what you clean out of your life with some det-urgent.


1. Zhu, M., Yang, Y., & Hsee, C. K. (2018). The mere urgency effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(3), 673-690.

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