Stop the Frenzy! — The Hidden Cost of “Hallucinated Urgency”

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Find yourself caught up in “performative busyness”? Here’s how to draw the line.

Do you spend your days sprinting between meetings, appointments, and 1,000 other daily obligations? Juliet Funt, the author of A Minute to Think, argues that you may be setting yourself up for failure — and offers ways to reclaim your time.

In preindustrial agriculture, it wasn’t uncommon for laborers to chew coca leaves (the source for cocaine) while working. It makes sense: Doing manual, repetitive labor in the baking sun is aided by a slight high — think of it as “better working through chemistry.”

Most of us don’t do physical labor all day, but, unbeknownst to us, we’re often trying to do the all-encompassing work of life while high on the rush of doing. When I say “high,” I’m not talking about that one special gummy bear you experimented with on your birthday; I’m talking about the altered mental state of “hallucinated urgency,” a chronic condition where the time-sensitivity of tasks is flattened and everyone is in a permanent state of fight or flight — all day, every day. (Economist Juliet B. Schor calls this phenomenon “performative busyness.”)

Have you ever too-quickly hit “send” on an email and then felt a surge of regret? Thank hallucinated urgency for that one. Ever blurt out a premature answer to an important question? That’s hallucinated urgency again, popping that answer right out of your lips like a communication Heimlich maneuver.

Answer that text!! Finish that project!! Respond fast to that email or you’ll be judged as unresponsive!! Fed by the toe-tapping, pen-clicking, hopped-up pace all around us, we define every single thing we touch as time-sensitive by default. This way of living leaves us randomly applying our precious effort to all our tasks, with nary a pause in sight. 

Step back and watch the movie of your real life. Are you stuffing down a Luna bar instead of eating lunch, multi-tasking through phone calls while cleaning the stovetop while online shopping, and then stumbling out the door while thinking about five additional to-do list items at once? It’s not just you: We’re all affected by the frantic mental music that plays in the background of work and life. The task is learning how to drown it out. 

Urgency Is a Choice

Talking back to urgency is key as you walk the path of developing a more thoughtful, meaningful, and dare I say, spacious life. But when our bodies are habituated to leaping before they look, we lose this gear of deliberateness. At work or with volunteer projects, expectations around pace are so ingrained in us that we barely see them. Faster is better, and life becomes a competition where speed is the prime category to be judged against. 

But it’s an illusion. Time isn’t moving faster — you are. You are choosing to rush. 

Your hairstyle is your choice. Your hobbies are your choice. Your words are your choice. And urgency is your choice. Your friends and colleagues can blanket everything with a light dusting of mania, but you don’t have to buy in. In fact, by opting out of this particular form of social conformity, you serve yourself better.

What Is Truly Urgent

Let’s contrast our daily illusion of urgency to a place where urgency couldn’t be more real — an emergency room. I did just that when preparing to present a speech for the Emergency Nurses Association on a unique challenge: How could ER nurses, working in the grip of true urgency — the life-and-death, no-more-chances kind of urgency — make some things more important than others? 

It seems they could. These nurses learned, through necessity, to look at each need and prioritize. I asked one of them how she maintained emotional equilibrium while triaging a roomful of injured people, while frightened moms clamored at the admittance window for her attention. She said, “I pause. I smile. And I say to the whole line of them, ‘One at a time.’”

Every time I recall this experience, I get a perspective-building reminder of what “urgent” truly means. Is there blood? Is there a pulse? These are questions of urgency. Have I organized my jewelry case? Did I place that Amazon order? Not so much.

Categories of Urgency

Refuting the expectations of hallucinated urgency allows us to have authority over our choices. One task and one interaction at a time, we can shift away from a culture of now and spread the practice of purposeful urgency instead. When you pause, you decelerate, and then you can thoughtfully place any item or action before you in one of three urgency categories:

NOT TIME-SENSITIVE: It seems obvious but it’s rare for us to acknowledge that a need can be “not time-sensitive.” Remind your inner project manager and others around you that in fact, some decisions and actions really don’t need to be dealt with now. 

TACTICALLY TIME-SENSITIVE: Here, the relationship between speed and action is tied to a result. When you identify something as tactically time-sensitive, it indicates that this is where your life and goals are furthered by going fast. Swiftness here might help you further an important relationship, nail down an agreement, or show up for someone you love the right way. But even though you’ve identified an item as urgent, urgency is not an emergency — and you can still approach your task calmly. 

EMOTIONALLY TIME-SENSITIVE: In this category, needs are masquerading as tactically time-sensitive but, really, they’re not. The compulsion to prioritize them comes from elsewhere. Curiosity, anxiety, worry, control, discomfort with ambiguity, or the hyperactive default pace of the culture of insatiability can all be part of the mix. Even positive emotions can be the fuel, such as excitement or intrigue. But if Spock, the Vulcan master of neutrality, was weighing in, he would affirm that your motivation is more emotional than logical.

Here are a few instances where you might use this three-category framework: 

  • Before asking a contractor about progress on a project
  • Before you decide on a new volunteer commitment
  • Before you accept an invitation
  • Before you spend or give significant money
  • Before you phone your partner or spouse with a need
  • Before you ask a tangent question in a business meeting
  • And, of course, if you’re on the receiving end of any of the above

First, take a pause to control your craving for immediate gratification. Assess the level of true urgency, and place the item across one of the three categories. Then, if it’s truly urgent, take action. 

Will your slowed-down self be twitchy and uncomfortable? You bet. 

Will you slip occasionally and rush through a million things at hyper speed? Perhaps. 

But with determination, you’ll get better at spotting real vs. hallucinated urgency, one choice at a time. And you’ll give yourself, and those who look to you, the gift of a life lived in a gentler gear.

Juliet Funt is the author of A Minute to Think, an inspirational guide that offers readers the permission and direction to regain control of their workday and find precious time.