On Urgency: Ineffective, Optimal or Overwhelming

I want to build on the idea of the role of urgency in getting things done that I introduced last week. It’s a central concept, I think, but also one that often gets dealt with a little too simplistically as we think about work, procrastination and motivation.

To expand on my theory a little further, I suspect that each of us has an optimal level of urgency that we find motivating. The challenge associated with this is manifold. Firstly, I believe that most of us have a ‘sweet spot’ in terms of optimal level of urgency. Too much and the corresponding stress causes our inner turtle to become overwhelmed. Not enough, and we return to our slothful ways, not really getting anything meaningful done whatsoever. At best, we are going through the motions, displaying a veneer of industry that belies our inherent lack of motivation. Put another way, the lights are on but nobody’s home.

This is a concept that has a fair bit of support in a few different contexts. The idea of having an optimal level of performance (and a threshold minimum below which no one is really showing up) is played out in personality theory. Brian Little, in his book Me, Myself and Us, provides an exceptional illustration of how introversion and extraversion actually work.

For starters, introversion and extroversion aren’t binary concepts; we are not simply one or the other. Instead, they describe a continuum of points on a scale; our preferences tend to one dimension or other of the scale, but we have some range to work with. We may tend to lean one way or the other, but it’s not simply an either-or proposition. And sometimes it can be both.

What introversion and extraversion functionally represent is our personal appetite and response to stimulus. For those with an extraverted tendency, there is a threshold minimum you have to hit simply to get a functioning human being. Not enough stimulus, and extraverts are incapable of paying attention out of sheer boredom. Those who lean towards introversion are the opposite; too much stimulation and they cognitively shut down as a result overwhelming distraction. At one extreme, Nine Inch Nails makes for soothing background music; the other group can’t function unless cosseted by nine inches of insulation.

A key point for both groups is that failure to attain an optimal level of stimulation is a source of stress. When we are not functioning optimally, we are distracted, frustrated and have difficulty focusing. We mitigate that by trying to control our environment and our influences: the extrovert mainlines coffee and turns the stereo up to 11, while the introvert opts for calming tea and a firmly closed door.

While these are stereotypical illustrations (I, for one, love espresso but opt for different musical choices) they are still fair representations of the kinds of stimulus different preferences either seek or avoid. And they illustrate well that one person’s optimal state is another person’s overwhelming distraction. This leads to another key insight: stress grows when stimulus is controlled by others, and not by us. This has a number of impacts in the context of urgency. I know with a fairly high level of confidence that without a sufficient level of deadline looming on the horizon, I’m not going to get anything done. Worse, it helps if I have multiple deadlines. Normally, I’m juggling two or three projects at a time. Occasionally, it’s four or five. It has ranged higher than that.

Several of you may be cringing at the thought of having that many balls in the air at the same time. And while I find the idea of having one thing to focus on mentally appealing, I also know myself well enough at this point to know that it’s a mythical state that has no bearing on my reality. If I have only one thing occupying my attention, then my mind interprets that as having all the time in the world to get it done. At which point, there’s no point spending any time on it now. Or soon. Or possibly ever.

The flip side of this challenge, though, is that there is a fine line between optimal and overwhelmed. Too many deadlines looming too large in my future, and the stress mounts considerably. Fully loaded up with commitments and there is no capacity for error. Which means when something unexpected comes along, it runs the risk of the whole house of cards crashing down around me.

Csikszentmihalyi talks about a similar concept in his book Flow. When we attain that elusive state of flow, we are engaged and immersed in the task, and feel well challenged by the work at hand. While we may—and probably should—have to stretch our skills in order to succeed, success is possible. It takes work and effort, success is not guaranteed and we are going to encounter obstacles, but the work is engaging, stimulating and demanding enough to keep our attention. When there is a mismatch between skill and challenge, however, problems emerge. Too easy, and we aren’t engaged. Too difficult and we become engulfed.

A lot of this again has a great deal to do with the idea of control. When I can control my schedule and my commitments, I can usually sustain an optimal level of balance in terms of urgency, without veering all the way into insanity. When others start to manufacture expectations, impose deadlines or arbitrarily change commitments, my stress level veers to the stratosphere enormously quickly.

Simply knowing that each of us has an optimal level of urgency that we find motivating is useful. Recognizing that our ability to control and negotiate the commitments we take on, and the corresponding level of challenge, is even more important. Having the skills to balance and sustain a healthy level of urgency and focus is arguably critical.

The challenge with that is that others, in their efforts to be ‘helpful,’ may unwittingly be imposing constraints or expectations that do nothing to help our performance, and a great deal to undermine it. My work ethic is one that many people admittedly find intimidating. Several of my ‘others’ would probably like me to slow down. A few have expressly stated as much. In one memorable instance, early in my career, an employer suggested that I focus my attentions on the project to which I was assigned, and stop looking for extraneous opportunities. For him, this was arguably his desired work state, in which he was most productive. For me, it was hell.

There are broader concerns when we look at managing the work of others, and in particular when we look at managing a team. To a large extent, that’s where this rumination began. I’m working with a team within a customer organization, and I’ve had the opportunity to observe their individual and collective performance for an extended period of time. Some are engaged with the work of the team, others are showing up in the team but engaged with their own departmental commitments, a couple are clearly bored and impatient and a select few are running extraordinarily close to being completely overwhelmed.

Teams are really interesting constructs. We value them because they let us get more done than is possible on our own. And yet they are a source of frustration because in building teams we are bringing together groups of individuals with very different histories, world views, experiences, expectations, skills, personalities and hopes for the future. Lining up and focussing a group of people—particularly a group of talented, skilled and individually capable people—is one of the most difficult things that we can do. What’s more, even if we can temporarily create alignment in brief moments of cohesion and collaboration, sustaining it is an enduring challenge.

One of the largest problems—and one of the greatest influences—in establishing effective team performance is how we relate to the idea of urgency. Several years ago, Connie Gersick conducted research into how groups develop and establish themselves. At the time, the dominant model of team development was Bruce Tuckman’s ‘forming-storming-norming-performing’ framework (and to some, it still is). What Gersick found is that this doesn’t really articulate how teams form at all. In particular, there is a tendency for groups to spend far more time in storming than Tuckman’s model would suggest, and that performance was elusive unless some key critical elements are in place.

Overall, Gersick’s work fits in a framework of what she describes as ‘punctuated equilibrium.’ In essence, teams start at the outset with a set expectation of performance, focus, collaboration and urgency. From that point, the group will typically sustain a consistent level of performance for some time, despite any efforts by the leader or individual team members to shift it.

What does shift team performance—if a shift is going to occur—is significant. Dubbed the ‘mid-point transition,’ it is essentially a recognition on the part of the group that they are half way through the timeline for a project, and no where near half of the work has been accomplished. Now, ‘mid point transition’ is the polite term for this phenomenon; a more accurate moniker might have been the ‘oh, shit’ factor. Because that’s pretty much what occurs. There is a visceral, emotional recognition that the team is failing, and that if something doesn’t fundamentally change, success is going to be impossible.

What is essential here are two key factors: first, performance gets dialled in at the start and stays there. And secondly, for performance to change, there needs to be a gut-level wrenching recognition that change has to happen. There were teams in Gersick’s research that actually started off very well, and simply maintained a high level of performance. More of them, however, started off poorly and stayed there for some time.

All of this fundamentally comes back to the idea of urgency. As individuals, we have an optimal level of urgency. As teams, we adopt an accepted level of urgency at the outset and tend to stick to it (although interestingly, this may not be the optimal individual level of urgency that actually constitutes individual people’s happy place). From that point forward, performance tends to be sustained (recognizing that actual performance can vary from fully engaged to entirely dysfunctional). And if performance is going to change, it’s because there is an emotional recognition that we are failing (meaning that actual performance is misaligned with required level of urgency, where recalibration is usually defined as a swift kick in the seat of the pants).

Knowing this is half the battle. It has taken a disturbingly long time in my own career to recognize that I thrive when I am busy, and flounder when I’m not. Calibrating the right level of busy, one that equates with the idea of flow, is a challenging balance, one that I’m still trying to get right. Sustaining that level is a product of careful negotiation, and also consciously building in time to rest, recharge and reorient myself. I have learned the hard way that I can’t stay busy all the time, and that recovery time is also essential to build in. But I also know that simply slowing down, reducing my commitments and focussing on one thing is simply not going to cut it.

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