Sense of Urgency

I did an exercise in a workshop some time back that involved the participants visualizing it was the last day of our lives and we had 24 hours before we said our goodbyes to friends and families. What would we do on this last day of our lives? How would we use that time?

Shockingly, the things we shared didn’t include spending time at work, watching Netflix, or wasting time doing trivial things such as checking email or social media. Some of the things we shared amongst ourselves included apologizing to our friends and family for something we did in the past, telling them that we love them, telling our families about our finances, writing a will, and giving them access to our accounts (for closure). Last, but not least, having our favorite food one more time, or listening to music we like. We wanted to do some of these things for some time, but in the everyday busyness of things, we never got around to doing them.

The point of this exercise was to make us realize we always skip the important things thinking we’ll have enough time for them later. But, we never get around to doing them. Also, we presume that we will live a long life, but who knows how much time we actually have? We may live to see another day, a few months, or a few years. Life is short. We can either live doing the important things now (while we are alive and healthy), or we can regret it later after it’s too late; the choice is ours.

When I think about living a life with a sense of urgency (and purpose), I think primarily of two things — the person we become through the contribution we make to this world, and the relationships we sustain in our lives. I think of the latter as being the best child, spouse, parent, or friend you can possibly be.

To me, this means living a life of growth and contribution. It means spending time with those who are important to us. It means doing the work and helping others make a difference in their lives. It means leaving the planet better than we found it. It’s about being grateful for the time you have and to serve others using your strengths.

Now, I am a huge advocate for living the slow life. Some may argue there is a contradiction between that and living with a sense of urgency. In other words, some may argue they are mutually exclusive, but I beg to differ. The latter doesn’t mean doing things hurriedly, but with intention. It’s not about scheduling every minute of your day, but living with purpose. You can do both without losing any of the benefits of either. You don’t have to make a choice between the two. It’s perfectly alright to spend idle time (which may not be “wasted time”) as long as it’s coming from a place of intention.

Living a life with urgency doesn’t mean you skip your less-important responsibilities, such as doing laundry, paying your bills, getting your car washed, purging your closet, and so on. Instead, it’s about being aware of how you’re using that time.

As I write this, I am reminded of this quote from the film, Fight Club, which can be equally depressing and motivating:

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

When I started out this year, my only resolution was to live each day to the fullest, not waste time on trivial things, live the industrious life, and make the most of my discretionary time. In other words, sucking the marrow out of life — making time for things that are important to me, such as keeping in touch with friends and family because we don’t know how much time we have (as morbid as that sounds). I committed to do things that have lasting value, such as writing for this weblog and helping others make an impact in their lives (as part of growth and contribution). I wanted to make the time for my self, my work, and my relationships.

This reminded me of what Steve Jobs said at the 2005 Stanford Commencement, which I highly recommend you read and/or watch the video:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right”. It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Stop trying to avoid failure. Stop chasing money. Stop trying to go after the low-hanging fruit. Strive to make a difference in other people’s lives. Make a dent in the universe. The fact that you know you are going to die one day should not be thought of as demotivating, but it should be seen as the biggest motivation to put your best foot forward and make the most of your life. In other words, thinking about death should clarify your life. I heard a story about someone living across from a cemetery because it kept their mortality front and center.

This is what Jobs said about death in his speech:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time and attention is invaluable. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Live a life on your terms. Define your own success metrics. Besides, you don’t need to justify how you spend your time on this planet to anyone. No one is entitled to you.

Don’t take your life for granted. Do something with it. Live your dream. Don’t get caught up in buying stuff to avoid your real issues. Bring them out and seek to resolve them. Just because you keep ignoring them (by living in denial) does not mean they will go away. Life will keep throwing you the same challenges until you learn to overcome them.

Jobs continued, saying:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

I am sure you’ve heard stories of people who found out they have terminal illness with few days to live. It spurs them to make the most of their lives and make each day count. The point is you don’t have to wait until you reach that point. It should make no difference to you whether you have 30 days or 30 years to live. You need to live them with equal urgency.

When success increases, urgency often decreases. It’s common for individuals, organizations, and even sports teams to get more complacent as they achieve more success, but it’s precisely then that they should be on their toes because that’s when they have momentum on their side.

Here are some ideas for living with urgency.

Do the essential things (important and non-urgent) first, taking into account your self (including your health), your work, and your relationships. Without any one of these, you will likely be undermining your self.

Look after your self first (help others later if you can/want). Remember, you can’t help others at the cost of your own well-being.

Show up every day and do the work. Focus on doing fewer things better in the course of your lifetime. Learn to say no to things, which can only happen when we say yes to a few things.

When I don’t spend part of my day working (to help others), I feel less than great at the end of the day because we are wired to make ourselves useful to others. By not doing that, we are depriving ourselves and others of our talent, and that is really a lose-lose scenario.

Sustain healthy relationships. Keeping in touch with those you care about (such as your friends and family) is paramount. Who knows if/when you’ll be able to talk to them again or spend time with them in the future. Have fewer, deeper relationships. If everyone is your friend, then no one is your friend. Lee Iacocca’s father said it best:

If you’ve got five real friends, you’ve had a great life.

Create space for yourself to think and reflect on things regularly so that you know if you need to course-correct.

Review each passing week and plan the following week. Schedule time for your self first, always.

Avoid living (and working) with a false sense of urgency (or as I like to call it — the stupidity of everyday busyness), which can happen when we you are constantly rushing from one thing to the next like a raging bull not knowing where its going. For instance, if you put a due date on a project that isn’t really due, then you’re simply deluding yourself. Life is not about cranking as many widgets as possible in the shortest time possible.

Don’t get caught in the “success trap”. Remind yourself why you do what you do. Here is what I wrote in an earlier draft:

We aspire to make more money and be more successful so we can buy more stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about. We have been made to believe from advertising (a culture of consumerism) that if we buy these products, our life will be better. We can spend eternity trying to keep up with the Joneses, but is that what we truly want? Eventually, we’ll hit a wall. Sooner or later, we’ll find out that despite having those things, we have a void in our lives and this notion of “success” was wrong from the beginning.

Living your life with a sense of urgency is not about rushing things or living hurriedly. It doesn’t mean living a life devoid of fun — if anything, just the opposite. If you’re not having fun learning and growing, or you don’t find your work exciting, or your relationships seem to have run out of steam, then those things should be red flags, which means you need to do something about them. It’s only when you regularly give your undivided attention to each of these three areas of your life that you can live a life of meaning, purpose, and growth.

You can either live in fear or you can use that fear constructively to live your life proactively. The truth is that years will go by in the blink of an eye. Make the most of it now. Don’t wait for tomorrow.

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