Urgency Culture: On the go or On the nerve?

By Maria Morales, MA, MHC-LP

What is Urgency Culture?

In the digital age, there has been a societal shift in our common ideas about productivity and leisure. As a psychotherapist, I find that my clients feel they must always be “doing something” in order to feel worthwhile or content. This phenomenon is commonly known as “urgency culture” which is the notion that we must always be “hustling” to achieve our personal goals in life or available 24/7 – whether for work, family or friends. But let’s take a moment to examine urgency in general. Urgency Culture has its roots in social media (what’s everyone else doing?) and the notion that things are scarce (i.e., money, time). We don’t live forever, so that means that time is of the essence hence what we do counts for something. The problem occurs when we blur the line between what urgently needs our attention in the moment, and what does not.

What is actually Important vs. Urgent

The purpose of this article is to encourage you to start contemplating what are the urgent vs important, but not urgent, tasks of your daily life so that you can make use of your time effectively, and in a healthy manner. Important tasks might look like picking up the jacket from dry cleaning vs. answering a call from a family member who is sick – which would be urgent. A client who struggles with anxiety might urgently need to fill out her time sheet so she can get paid, but might find that answering emails is something that she can get done later. What’s important will undoubtedly vary person to person, depending on goals, culture, career and a multitude of other factors – but as a rule of thumb you can always think of urgent tasks as meeting deadlines.

Negative Effects of Urgency Culture

Living a life that fits into what society deems important and urgent for you can lead to a neglect of personal identity. As you can imagine, this contributes to anxiety, irritability, stress and burnout. Social media is a big enabler of urgency culture, as its’ principle features include letting followers know what’s going on and constantly looking at what everyone else is doing. Comparisons are inevitable. You see other’s excelling at careers, traveling the world, getting engaged, married or forming a family, and suddenly you begin to question if you’re doing this life thing “right.”

Have you felt the pressure of urgency culture? You can start to ask yourself if thoughts along the lines of “they wont consider me a good friend if I don’t make plans to see them” or “I’m lazy if I don’t answer this work email right now” have crossed your mind – if so, chances are urgency culture is trying to get a hold of you. Over time we erroneously learn that in order to not feel “victimized” by these thoughts, we must obey them, and as this pattern continues we get to a point where we realize we are unhappy. None of us is exempt from this. I realized that when caught up in the demands of my adult life, I ended up neglecting the “book worm” identity I developed as a child, when I often lost an afternoon to a C.S. Lewis novel. After the nights completing papers in graduate school and dedicating myself to seeking licensure as a psychotherapist by seeing clients full-time, I found myself wondering when was the last time I read a book for pleasure. I had fallen victim to “adulting” and it’s byproduct, urgency culture.

How to Combat Urgency Culture, and Win

Some of you reading this might think that urgency is what brings food to the table, or what turns dreams into realities. However, if we become hyper-focused and group all things under the “urgent” category we might drown in these tasks thus neglect other equally meaningful parts of our identity which leads to dissatisfaction with one’s self or life. Finding middle ground and balancing your time to fulfill each part of your identity is a way to tackle this societal pressure.

Here are 3 strategies to overcoming Urgency Culture and empowering your authentic self:

1.Find the truth behind your thoughts

Take the one of the thoughts mentioned above of being a lazy employee as an example. Are you measuring your worthiness as an employee solely on email response time and minimizing the other factors in which you excel in your job? When you have these recurring thoughts use the THINK acronym and ask yourself the following:

Is this thought true?
Is this thought helpful?
Is this thought inspiring?
Is this thought necessary?
Is this thought kind?

2. Set Healthy Boundaries

To learn what boundaries you need to set, create a list of your daily habits throughout the week (ex: social media use, socializing, exercise, work related correspondence etc). This will help you reflect on how most of your time and money is spent so that you can reorganize your day-to-day life in a way that makes sense for you.

In doing this exercise with a past client during a therapy session, my client realized that they spent over an hour answering questions for coworkers after their shift, which often meant they did not make it home on time to tuck their kids into bed. This parent believes quality time with their child is important and getting to see them before bed was urgent. While providing feedback to coworkers might be important, it was often not urgent. This client’s new boundary looks something like:

“I will no longer answer questions after my shift is over, instead I’ll set a specific time in the daytime for this task.”

The truth is, boundaries are necessary to maintain a healthy relationship with others and yourself. On the contrary, resentment builds and leads to conflict and/or unhappiness. Communicate your boundaries to employers, coworkers, friends and family with assertiveness and kindness. Separate your personal identity from your identity as an employee, student, partner, or family member. What do you love to do that brings you joy, peace and tranquility?

3. Observe your emotions

The purpose of observing your emotions is to learn that it is ok for them to be there. Just because we feel guilty does not mean we should do something about that guilt in that moment (such as answering a text, email or call). Similarly to step 1, try to observe when certain negative feelings such as pressure or guilt begin to overwhelm you. As you observe your emotions you can ask yourself questions like:

“What sensation does this emotion create in my body?”
“Is the texture bumpy or fuzzy?”
“What color is it?”

This allows you to separate yourself from the sensations and make room for unpleasant emotions instead of pushing them away. Combining this mental strategy with deep breathing can be quite soothing as you imagine your breath going in, around and throughout the sensation.

Practicing these 3 strategies can help you gain a healthy control over the scarcity of your time and money while also allowing space for you to flourish as the unique individual you are. While social media can be a space to interact and share creativity, it can also lead us to distorted comparisons between ourselves and where others are in their lives. Remember that at the end of the day, things aren’t always what they seem.

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