The Urgency of Considering Urgency


July 29, 2007   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

In 1973, a study was published by John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson. It is often referred to as the Good Samaritan study, and it is a remarkable glimpse into how powerful a force our situation is on our behavior.

Subjects in the study were put into a situation where some had to hurry from one building to the next, and some did not. Directly in their path was placed a person who pretended to be hurt. The experimenters wanted to know what impact urgency, among other things, would have on helping behavior. Only 6 in 10 unhurried people stopped to help the crumpled, moaning figure in their path. Even worse, only 1 in 10 stopped when they were instructed that they were urgently needed at the other location.

Now this result could be interpreted as a conscious decision about priorities, but post experiment interviews revealed that the urgency of the situation so dramatically influenced their perceptions that most didn’t even remember the confederate being there.

The Effects of Urgency

But it isn’t just urgency’s impact on our perceptions that can cause us problems. Other research, for example, shows that urgency causes us to:

    • make decisions quicker and with less information than we usually think we need.


    • fall asleep slower than when there is no urgency to do so.


  • become anxious before we are even consciously aware of the urgency of the situation.

From an evolutionary perspective, our reactions to urgency make a lot of sense. It’s important to take notice and act on the roar of a nearby lion, to put yourself out when you accidentally catch fire, or to put up your hands when someone tries to punch you. On the other hand, evolution did not build in a way to decide if the ringing phone is something important or not (at least not yet anyway), so the fact that it could be, and that it has to be answered now or you’ll run out of time to answer it, activates the urgency response of focused attention and agitation. So, while you are stuck with the response, there are things you can do that productivity experts say can help keep it from exerting too much control.

Experts’ Suggestions

One method of urgency control focuses at the immediate level on prioritizing your to-do items in your daily task list based on both importance and urgency and then sticking with the list until it is completed. This is the method advocated by Stephen Covey. But the main focus for Covey is to accomplish the important (but not urgent goals) that will eventually lead to a decrease in the number of urgent (but unimportant) activities or crises that arise. For example, training your receptionist to deal with certain correspondence will free up the time normally spent answering it.

The more bottom up approach of David Allen’s GTD deals with urgency in a different, perhaps more efficient, manner. Allen’s method is to schedule date specific/urgent items primarily on the calendar as appointments as opposed to the to-do list, creating a time for the item to be accomplished. Beyond that, the use of contexts allows for a further efficiency in that tasks are left off the radar until something can be done about them. You can leave the urgency of work at work.

When you put the bottom up and top down approaches together, you see that it is the combination of planning and execution that deter the negative effects of urgent but unimportant tasks. Planning allows you to create a schedule to prevent tasks from becoming urgent, and proper discretion in the execution phase allows you to decide which urgencies are actually important. Other urgencies should not disrupt the plan.

Using Urgency to Your Benefit

    • Turn large projects with deadlines into a series of small tasks with your own deadlines based on conservative estimates of how long they’ll take.


    • Always shave at least a day off every deadline you’re given.


    • Schedule pre-deadline meetings with a colleague to have them briefly inspect your work. The artificial deadline will motivate you.


  • Use urgent, unexpected situations to learn where you aren’t planning well. If the same emergency keeps showing up, figure out how to stop it from happening again.

As an analogy, urgency is like the rapids in a river. If you’ve planned ahead, and you are diligent in the moment, you’ll be able to use the useful ones to move you along quicker, and you’ll be able to avoid the ones that will just turn you around in circles.

This post was written exclusively for Dumb Little Man by John R. McCarthy, Ph.D. of


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