Is it really urgent? Or are you just spiking my cortisol levels unnecessarily?

These days so much of what I receive is marked “urgent”. If I was pilot or a surgeon I would understand the urgency of a request to do something. But I am not. I am a lawyer. And in reality there is very little that requires an instant response.

The immediacy of the way we live has generated such a pace of thought, desire and need, that we are becoming hardwired to want everything straight away. It’s not just at work that we’re following this sped-up approach. Galvanised by the rise of high-speed internet, our jam-packed schedules, social media feeds and on-demand services, we’ve learned to live our lives at double speed, rushing through everything from our social media feeds to our morning routines, and expecting everything to happen almost instantaneously.

For those of us who receive all of those urgent requests from a myriad of different media, it is, of course, not physically possible to react to everything immediately. The outcome is stress and the sender’s perception that nothing is being done quickly enough. What have we done to this world, so that clients expect an instant turnaround? Because it is not humanly possible to fulfil all of the demands immediately at the same time.

I don’t think it’s as simple as failing to manage expectations and I know I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities that demand our attention. Many of us feel like that all the time, perpetuating the need to label everything as urgent, believing it to be the only way to get things done efficiently.

It’s becoming a very viscous cycle that is damaging to us all – physically, emotionally & professionally – for the following reasons:

Dilution of True Urgency

One of the most significant dangers of consistently marking tasks as urgent is the dilution of what truly constitutes an urgent matter. When everything is labelled as urgent, it becomes challenging to distinguish between a pressing issue and a routine task. This can lead to a constant state of heightened stress and anxiety, making it difficult to respond to real emergencies when they arise. Focusing solely on urgent tasks can lead to a loss of long-term perspective. It’s essential to strike a balance between addressing immediate needs and working towards future goals. When everything is marked as urgent, long-term planning and strategic thinking tend to fall by the wayside.

Increased Stress Levels

I’ve mentioned it above, but the perpetual urgency mindset contributes to heightened stress levels. When everything is treated as a top priority, our bodies are constantly in fight-or-flight mode. Fight-or-flight mode is no bad thing. We need it to energise us to navigate our way out of threatening or dangerous situations. The problem comes when our fight-or-flight mode is activated in situations which are not threatening or dangerous, leaving us with cortisol and adrenaline pumping unnecessarily through our bodies. Our nervous systems don’t know the difference between an email marked “urgent” and a pride of lions stampeding our cave, and our constant fight-or-flight response leads to burnout, reduced productivity, and potential health issues.

Inefficient Use of Time and Resources

Not all tasks are created equal, and treating them as such can lead to a considerable waste of time and resources. When we allocate the same level of urgency to every task, we risk neglecting more critical responsibilities that genuinely require our attention. This leads to a misallocation of our energy and effort.

Impaired Decision-Making

The urgency bias can cloud our judgement and hinder effective decision-making. When we’re constantly reacting to perceived crises, we struggle to make well-thought-out choices. This can have a negative impact on both our personal and professional lives, leading to less than ideal outcomes wherever we are. Who hasn’t dashed off an email and either sent it to the wrong person or regretted its content when re-reading it later?

Obviously it’s essential to address urgent matters promptly. But it’s equally important to differentiate between what is genuinely urgent and what is not. If everyone adopted a more nuanced approach to task management and thought about prioritisation, time management, and the ability to differentiate between what requires immediate attention and what can wait, I am confident we could all achieve a healthier work-life balance and overall success.

So, let’s step back from the urgency mindset and regain control of our lives, one task at a time.