Why Circular Urgency is Killing Your Productivity (And How to Fix It)

By Sean Ogle •  Updated: 07/07/16 •  7 min read

Why Circular Urgency is Killing Your ProductivityFor the past year I’ve been on a relentless pursuit to analyze my productivity.

I talk to a lot of people in typical day jobs who are beginning to pursue entrepreneurship – and often I see them have a grass is greener mentality.

I hear things like:

All of those things can be true.

But take it from someone who has battled with the reality of remote work and self-employment for nearly 7 years – it’s not always that easy.

I’ve discovered some things that have worked really well for me this past year.

And in doing that I’ve also found a pattern that seems to be at the heart of many of my procrastination tendencies.

I call it the Circular Urgency Dilemma, and my guess is it’s something you’ve experienced as well, regardless of whether you have a job, own a business, or are a student.

It looks like this:

  1. Do your most “urgent” tasks when you get to work. Things like answering emails, taking phone calls, going to meetings, and putting out other fires.
  2. Feel productive. Often this can take an entire morning, or even the better part of a day. And in doing so, you feel productive. If I sit down and answer 2-3 hours of email, I feel really productive, even if I still have a big list of things I never got to.
  3. Drain Willpower. By now most of us know that you only have so much will power in a given day. The more decisions you make, the more things you have to think about, and the more fires you have to put out – the more you tap the well that is your willpower.
  4. Don’t Do “Important” Tasks. Once your willpower has been depleted, you don’t end up doing more important tasks like creating marketing funnels or campaigns, networking, creating products etc.
  5. Repeat.

Usually it’s the urgent tasks that require the least amount of thinking.

It takes much less energy to respond to reader emails than it does to create an elaborate sales funnel. Yet, all too often we get in the habit of doing the urgent (and easy) things first, leaving no energy left for the difficult, yet important “business growth” tasks.

This has been the last two years of my life.

It’s a great recipe for maintaining.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m fortunate that I’m maintaining my business in a good spot. Helping lots of people, making a good amount of money, having lots of flexibility with everything I do.

But up until this year I’ve found myself saying I was going to do a lot of things, but never getting around to actually doing them.

When there are no actual deadlines, it’s easy to push things back, continue focusing on what’s urgent, feeling productive in the process, and then realizing that the product you’re halfway through creating has been sitting in that state for months (if not more).

So how do you solve this circular urgency dilemma?

How do you retrain yourself to:

  1. Not let the urgent tasks you complete, satiate your need to feel productive
  2. Re-prioritize your efforts to get the important stuff done first.

The solution doesn’t solely  rest in more productivity tips. Those can help, but to break out of this circular habit, it requires a change in mindset more than the latest new tactic.

Are You Really Being Productive?

On a scale of 1-10 how productive do you feel on a daily basis?

Now on that same scale, being completely honest with your self how productive are you actually?

For years I’d say on good days I’d feel like I was at an 8 or 9 – but was really probably at a 3 or a 4.

It wasn’t until I started facing this issue head on and being honest with myself, that I could actually go through the process of making positive changes.

So step one is just realizing circular urgency is an issue for you.

Is Urgent, Really Urgent?

What are the tasks you naturally consider to be urgent?

For me it’s email, 100%. I usually spend at least half of my creative, productive time responding to emails.

Yes, they can be important. And I’ve made it really clear that my highest priority is serving my readers and community members – so I spend more time than the average person on email.

But 90% of those messages? They don’t need to be answered immediately. I’ve had to retrain myself to focus on email at set times, rather than dive in and spend all morning working on it.

For the past few months, I’ve been working on all of the important stuff and placing less emphasis on the things that make me feel like I’m getting shit done, but really just drain my willpower.

Because of this shift:

At this time last year, none of this was done. It was stuff I constantly talked about, but never made progress on.

Understand the Why Behind Your Work

This is something that’s been talked about ad nauseam in the entrepreneurial space, but understanding the true reasons why you’re doing the work you’re doing is important.

I wouldn’t say that I lost sight of my why, but I did keep it from being at the forefront of my mind for a little while – which led to maintaining rather than pushing things forward.

Read the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek for more help with this.

Too much work for you? Sign up on Blinkist and read it in 15 minutes.

Once You Have the Right Mindset, Explore Tactics

I said the key to defeating this issue isn’t in productivity tactics, but in mindset.

This is true, but once you’re in the right mindset and truly prepared to make changes, it’s important to approach your work in a way that is most productive for you. 

Last month I wrote a post about the things that have specifically worked for me, as I battle my ADD and procrastination habits. Check it out, as sometimes all it takes is one new idea to make a world of difference.

I hope this post served as an opportunity to analyze your own habits, and possibly shine the light on something you may not have consciously been aware of in your own life. I’ve been following this negative pattern for years, but only recently focused on exactly what I was doing, and why this is – and it’s helped me stop maintaining and start creating.

Sean Ogle

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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19 comments on "Why Circular Urgency is Killing Your Productivity (And How to Fix It)"

  1. Kent Bliven says:

    Thanks for the post, Sean. I have used those 3 excuses for years almost verbatim and now that I have been out of my day job for a few months I see myself slipping into the issues you outlined above. It is pretty insidious in that you “know” you should be working on the important stuff but the urgent stuff always jumps in the way and feels good at the time. It’s kind of like urgent tasks are the junk food and important tasks are the healthy food. You need to put off short term feelings for long term success and growth.

    1. Sean says:

      Answering emails and stuff like that is kind of like productivity crap – it’s not really doing anything good for you, but it feels good!

      …obviously thats a bit of an exaggeration, as obviously email has benefits, but you get my point haha

  2. Brian says:

    Great post Sean! Very timely and Is just what I needed to hear at this exact moment in time.

    1. Sean says:

      Glad I could help!

  3. Mike says:

    This nails it on the head of exactly what I’ve noticed I’m going through as well. Feeling productive but not getting anywhere. Before you know it time is slipping by. People call this time management, but I think it needs it’s own thing like you’ve written out in this one. Thanks

    1. Sean says:

      Thanks Mike! It’s amazing how productive I’ve felt over the last few years, with relatively little to show for it haha

  4. Needed to read this today. I’ve been fighting a losing battle with my inbox lately, and I always end the day feeling like I didn’t get enough done. Time to make a change! Thanks for sharing this bit of wisdom 🙂

    1. Sean says:

      Email Bankruptcy! But yes, it’s a constant battle. Do you use Sanebox? I’ve found that has helped quite a bit.

  5. Denny Matthew says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Sean – excellent treatment of a very bothersome thing. A book (suggested by Jason Leister in his daily email) that you and your members might find of interest on this topic is “The ONE Thing:The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Benefits” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan – Kindle edition available on Amazon. I found the book to provide some great insight into dealing with the issue that you describe. It’s a pretty quick read and easy to digest. Highly recommended!

    1. Sean says:

      Yeah I’ve read it, basically the whole thing can be summed up in it’s title haha. But I totally agree, that level of focus is generally better than spreading yourself thin.

      4 years ago I made the decision to make Location Rebel my “one” thing and it was the best move I could have made.

  6. Jana says:

    This is a very insightful post, and I think it may have been just what I needed to read right now. In the past couple of months I’ve finally seriously gotten on the path to location independence after meaning to do so for years. My particular problem is that the freelance work I’m starting out with to support myself is actually going so well that I find myself focusing on it too much and left unmotivated to work on more entrepreneurial projects, which may not pay off as much in the short term but would probably be more worthwhile in the long run. I think I’ll come back to this post again and try to absorb your ideas to get myself into the right mindset. Thank you for writing it!

  7. Love the idea of “circular urgency dilemma”. Awesome! And it’s truely a dilemma.

    I feel you only get in the dilemma if you get up with no exact plans. Then you just do what seems to be urgent and leave out the big frogs (important tasks). Planning ahead does the job for me quite well. Just never get in the urgency swirl…

  8. Kashif says:

    This is an excellent and much needed article for the entrepreneurs and work-from-home people worried about their productivity.

    I usually follow the Brian Tracy’s “Eat That Frog” principle and try to have my frog first thing at the start of work day. Also, it is important to know (as you have also mentioned) why do you work. The more you enjoy your work, the more it will be easier to overcome the obstacles and beat the procrastination.

    1. Kem Taylor says:

      “Eat The Frog” is a great rule. It has helped me immensely!

  9. Travis Fry says:

    Hey man,
    Great read! You’re really inspiring and I hope to emulate you someday.

  10. I believe the classic mistake is not having a priorities list (or not sticking to it).

    The first task we work on during the day should be the most glucose-intensive, which is generally creating content of some type.

    After getting a good chunk of creative work done, check in with how you feel. Are you feeling great still? Can you handle some more creative work? If so, keep creating.

    If you’re feeling a *done* with that type of work, what’s next on your priority list? This should be things that don’t need as much intense focus, like networking.

    Then, once a chunk of phase two is done, then start working on the dealing with other people’s requests of your time (email, phone calls, etc.).

    When I do a decent amount of work of all three of these, including moving my body (exercise) and being outside, then I feel like I was super productive.

  11. Corey Tat says:

    Hi Sean,

    I hear it time and time again from people that want to start their own business,
    “If I had my business, I would work harder because it’s for me and not for my employer!”

    When you work for yourself, alot of entrepreneurs that I’ve come across had a good attitude and realized they had to develop the work habits in advance. People that work hard – do it on someone else’s dollar, build the necessary skills to transition to an entrepreneur far easier, than people that want to decide to work hard when they are an entrepreneur and find out later it’s really hard work.

    With productivity, once I made that adjustment of doing the most important thing first thing in the morning, it really helped push all my projects forward. I make it a habit to wake up at 5am when it’s peaceful and quiet. I learned this years ago from Brian Tracy “EAT THAT FROG!” and it really changed my productivity.

    Simon Sinek’s book “START WITH THE WHY”, really provides clarity into our motivation. Once we understand our “Why” it really allows us to shift into a deeper mindset to push past our limits. I find that understanding our why, creates long term motivation. Especially if you are to approach building a business as a long term commitment.

  12. Tamara says:

    Hi Sean,

    So true! I’m really glad that you wrote this article because I also first dive into emails and then feel like I’ve been productive, when actually I have done nothing but postponed the things in which I need to be creative and need more energy for.

    But, it’s definitely time for a change and I hope to start applying this already from tomorrow! 😉

  13. Jhon jaka says:

    Great post Sean..

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