27th September, 2022

How to Escape the Urgency Trap

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

In this short episode, Rachel talks about becoming more productive in life and work by escaping the urgency trap. She discusses the principles of the Urgent-Important Matrix and how it can help us assess the urgency and importance level tasks. She then shares how to begin doing gradual deep work towards a bigger goal.

If you want to know how to escape the urgency trap and become more productive in life and work, stay tuned to this episode.

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Reasons to listen

  1. Learn about the concept of the urgency trap.
  2. Identify tasks you should focus on using the Urgent-Important Matrix.
  3. Find out the power of doing deep work.

Episode highlights


On ‘Managing’ Time


Urgent-Important Matrix


Urgency Trap


Navigating the Urgency Trap


The Power of Deep Work


Doing Deep Work

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: This is a You are Not a Frog quick tip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energised and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You are Not a Frog wherever you get your podcasts.

Today, I’m going to talk to you about the urgency trap, and I’m going to share with you the one thing that has made me much, much more productive in life and in work. You see, the problem with traditional time management techniques is that they focus on managing time, and as we know, we can’t manage time. You don’t have any control of time because you only have 24 hours in a day. Time carries on at a set pace. We cannot control that.

What we can control, however, is our schedule and how we tackle tasks. Many of us fall into the urgency trap where we feel like we are constantly firefighting urgent stuff, and we don’t get time to work on those important projects that might not be cropping up as urgent. But actually, we know that if we got to them, it would save a whole load of grief in the future when we leave things too late, and then, they suddenly do become urgent.

We get this deadline which we either miss or it just weighs on us very, very heavily. Now, this is really important because I know that healthcare professionals and those working in other high stress, high stakes jobs do not have any spare time, and that’s the one thing we noticed when we go into organisations and we talk about well being. There is no point starting with wellbeing. You have to start with time.

You have to start with enabling people to get some time and some headspace in their schedule to actually do those really important things like keep themselves mentally fit and healthy, so this is really, really important. Most of us just feel overwhelmed for most of the time. So what exactly is the urgency trap? So those of you that have done any of the shapes toolkit training with me will know that we use the urgent important grid to help us make sense of this, to work out where we even start.

For those of you watching this video on YouTube, I have an urgent important matrix drawn behind me. It’s very simple. It’s just a simple two by two matrix with two columns. One is urgent stuff. One is not urgent stuff and two rows. One is important stuff. One is not important stuff. So you end up with four boxes, and you might want to try this. Now, you might want to pause this podcast or the video and actually download your to-do list into the urgent and important grid.

Now, if you’ve done this, you will realise that the easiest box to fill up is, of course, the urgent and important one because often things seem very, very urgent. Often they are time limited, particularly when it’s patient care, patient crisis, surgeries, clinics, things that you need to do now. That is, as it should be, a large part of our job, and we just have to do them now, but what happens is that we get stuck in that urgent and important box just ticking off stuff on the to do list.

If we’re not careful, what we find is we very quickly drop below the line, the line of discernment, which is the line between the important stuff and the not important stuff. So we can quite quickly find ourselves doing things that are in the urgent, but actually not important. The thing about the urgency trap is that while we’re doing it in the short term, it feels good. We feel like superheroes because we are ticking things off on our to do list.

I’m getting that done. I’m getting this done. I’m ploughing through it. Look at me, I’m really productive here. But in the long term, when we look back on those days where we’ve just spent our time doing urgent stuff, we think what did I actually accomplish that day, and we’ve still got those big things that are niggling at us. So while it feels good to be working in the urgent bits of that grid, long term, it’s not great, and here is the problem.

There is loads of stuff in the not urgent but important box that we need to get to. In fact, I would suggest that most things that progress your goals that make a real difference to your workplace. Take time to think about, like team development, like writing those guidelines, like thinking about strategies and protocols and delegation. All these things take time, and they often don’t come up as urgent.

So we’ve got all these things in that quadrant two, which is stuff that’s not urgent, but is really important, and we never get the time to do them. We tell ourselves, we’ll do them when we finish the urgent stuff. Here’s the problem. If we do set aside time to do that important stuff that isn’t urgent at the expense of the urgent stuff, we feel guilty. We feel that we should be getting on with that urgent stuff.

We feel that perhaps we’re wasting our time and maybe it’s not that important after all. But, here’s the thing: in the long term, we’ll look back and think that was really important that I spent the time on that. So short term, we feel good doing the urgent stuff, and we feel guilty doing the important but not urgent stuff. Long term, firefighting the urgent stuff all the time is just stressful.

If we’re not focusing on that important non-urgent stuff, we will find that things start to become urgent because we’re not getting to them. That is the basis of the urgency trap. So what do we actually do about this? Well, firstly, recognise when you’re in it, recognise when you are spending most of your time in that urgent column, and then try and think to yourself, is there anything that I’m doing that feels urgent at the time that actually isn’t important that I can get rid of or I can get somebody else to do it?

I’m a great fan of delegation. That’s a topic for a completely different episode, but delegate as much as possible. If you’ve got stuff appearing particularly if it’s more in the non-important quadrant, think to yourself, actually who can do this, not how can I do it, but who can do this. That will really, really help. Then, work out how you are going to spend more time in the top right hand quadrant in that zone that is non urgent but important, and this is where it gets quite tricky.

Many of you who work in healthcare and many of you who are on the frontline client or patient facing will know that when you get to work, it’s straight into the day job, to seeing people and your schedule is often blocked out for the whole of the day. So some people will be thinking actually when is there time for me to block out and get to that really important stuff.

But the thing is there are times in the day that we can use, even if it’s just five or ten minutes. Many, many people when they get to work, if they’re not going straight into a clinic or a surgery or something like that, turn on their computer, and the first thing they do is open their emails and start dealing with emails. Emails often feel urgent, but only a few of them are really, really important. An email is a low focus task.

Emails are good to do maybe in that post lunch dip, where you’re a little bit more distracted, or maybe a bit tired at the end of the day. What I’m suggesting is that when you get to work, you do your important stuff first, even if it is just 15 minutes of working on that big project, of doing that presentation, of thinking through that problem. If you can do it before you even log on, that is brilliant.

Some of you may just need to check your emails just to check there is nothing come through that really requires answering just to put your mind at rest, but then turn off all your interruptions and sit down and put in time for deep work. Now, Cal Newport has written a fantastic book about this called Deep Work, and I would recommend anybody get this book, because as professionals, your job is to think.

Your job is to really battle with these problems. A lot of them don’t have easy solutions, and your job is to work this out. You can very rarely do that when you’re just firefighting urgent stuff. If you then get a deadline and you have to do this very quickly, your work won’t be of such high quality. So embrace the guilt of spending time on the stuff that is important rather than the stuff that is urgent because in the long term, that is where you’ll be powerful and you’ll be productive.

Set some time aside every day if you can to do some deep work. This might just be 10 minutes a day. You might get to the point where you can schedule a couple of hours in on one of the days of the week, but do this somewhere you won’t be disturbed, where you’re not getting notifications and interruptions. Do your best work at your best time. Most of us are the best in the morning.

For example, I am recording this episode first thing in the morning, when I know I am fresh, and I can do it. Some of you are better late at night, so if that’s what floats your boat, then set aside time later in the evening, and tackle those big, meaty important things first, because if you manage to do that, then actually everything else will seem easy. Some of you might be thinking, well, actually, when I do sit down to do this thinking time, what should I do?

What should I do in this deep work time? Well, I would suggest that anything that needs some real brain work that you might need to research a little bit, that you might need to be creative about, that should go in there. All those things that seem quite difficult, so planning a difficult conversation, or maybe replying to a complaint, those sorts of things where you really need to be at the top of your game that should go there.

If you don’t know where to start, what I suggest is you get a piece of paper, and you write down everything that’s bothering you right now. All those questions you don’t have the answer to, like how do I deal with this member of staff or where do I even begin with this, and then, you answer your questions yourself. You will be amazed at the answers you can generate, the way you can solve your own problems, if you just take the time to do it, to address it, to look at it.

So why don’t you, this week, schedule in 10 minutes a day to spend doing deep work and everyday see if you can build that up a little bit. You will need to block things out in your schedule because otherwise, other stuff will just get in there. Once you have blocked those things in, guard it with your life, because you will look back and you will see that time that you spent and you will know that it was not wasted.

You will know that that was the time where you started to take control of your workload and of your schedule. So I would love to know any other tips and hacks and ways that you have done this. Let me know, email me at hello@youarenotfrog.com and I’ll see you for the next episode.