How I deal with “urgency bias” so it doesn’t wreck my writing plans

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Are you familiar with the phrase urgency bias? It’s governing your life and you need to stop it in its tracks if you want to write.

When you hear that something is “urgent” how does that make you feel? Worried? Anxious? Sweaty? Panicked?

According to researchers from Johns Hopkins, who have published a paper on the phenomenon,  “People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.” 

As a result, we do stupid things all the time. We’ll spend way too much time on tasks that aggravate us, earn us less money, are less satisfying to us and fail to help us achieve our long-term goals. And we’ll almost always do these urgent jobs first. Why? Simply because the very idea of urgency creates a huge imperative. 

Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, famously wrote about this paradox 31 years ago. He noted that business people — and others —  tend to (wrongly) ignore what’s important. Instead, we focus on what’s urgent. Those of us beguiled by urgency are like small boats on the seas of our jobs — tossed and buffeted by the always-changing and ever-urgent demands of our employers or school programs.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you want to stop letting urgent tasks take over your working life, here are six tips:

1- Recognize urgency bias. As the Johns Hopkins study showed, we are hard-wired as human beings to put urgent matters first. Understand that this normal but that you want to override this natural instinct — in the same way that bungee jumpers override the fear of falling from great heights or doctors manage to not freak out at the sight of blood. If you acknowledge that it’s a challenge to put “urgent” matters temporarily on hold, you’re more likely to be able to do it. 

2-Remember to breathe. When urgent matters arise, human physiology takes control. Our heart rates speed up, our pulses start to escalate and many of us begin to sweat. You can help quiet this reaction if you take slow, steady breaths. A shocking number of writers suffer from what I like to call writing apnea. You can counteract this issue by paying more attention to your breathing and correcting your posture, too. 

3-Give your own ‘most-important-tasks’ top priority. Don’t allow urgent tasks into the first hour of your day. Instead, make this time non-negotiable for your own important work. When I wrote my book Your Happy First Draft, I did it in 30-minute segments from 6 am to 6:30 am every day. Early mornings are a great time to make progress on important tasks, with little risk of urgent matters interrupting. This is particularly true for writers who need a little bubble of “space” around them so they can work without being distracted. In particular, don’t allow yourself to check email or read the news before doing your own important work. This will only put you in the position of having to respond to someone else’s priorities, first. 

4-Use time-blocking to remove stress and to help you plan better. If you’ve never tried time-blocking, I strongly encourage you to consider it now. I keep a printed-out version of my own time-blocked chart on a clipboard to the right-hand side of my keyboard. It governs my entire day. This system — of planning every moment of your day in advance — allows you to take control of your schedule. Be sure to download my free chart (embedded within the link above) so you can complete it each morning — or, even better, the night before. Note that the chart includes a blank column that will allow you to make last-minute changes in the case of sudden urgencies you really can’t avoid. 

5-Be sure to schedule adequate time for the tasks you need to do each day. Many of us seem to think that meetings and email can be handled as if by magic. They cannot! Set aside specific blocks of time for these jobs so they don’t interfere with your much more important tasks. (And if you want to learn how to say no to meetings, check out item #1 in this post.)  

6-Allow for more unscheduled time. None of us has a crystal ball allowing us to predict exactly what’s going to happen on any given day and the multiplicity of ways in which it can fall apart. But if you plan for some time that you won’t be able to control, you’ll be ready to deal with unexpected and urgent tasks. And if the unexpected doesn’t arise, you’ll have even more time for your important tasks. Or time to dally in YouTube or read a novel. Won’t that be great? 

And here’s an interesting coda to conclude. While I’m writing this column, I have a matter of huge urgency simmering on the back burner. As a side business — arising out of my previous life as a journalist — I do a little bit of media relations work and one of my clients is in the middle of a crisis right now. But, guess what? I spent 15 minutes handling some email relating to their problem and now I’m spending 30 minutes writing this piece. I am being careful NOT to open my email while I do this (and I always keep notifications turned off.)

How can I be so calm (or cold), you might wonder? Well, the client has my cellphone number. If the matter is truly urgent, I know they will text me and I’ll be able to stop writing and attend to their problem. Sitting watching my email box — waiting for them to reply — would only be a gigantic waste of my time. 

And, to me, it’s more important to write this column. Writing is important to you, too. Make your plans match your aspirations. 

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed whether it’s wise to revisit existing mindmaps. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you deal with urgent tasks that want to get in the way of your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Andrea Dale, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Oct. 30/20 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Andrea!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here  to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!