Sense of Urgency: The Common Trait of Highly Productive People, Companies & Countries

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I read a lot about highly productive people, companies, and countries, and from what I learn, there seems to be a common trait behind them all. This trait makes the difference between the average and the superior performers.

The common trait is a sense of urgency.

A sense of urgency drives people, companies, and countries to work much harder than normal. It makes them work as if their lives depend on it (which, in many cases, is true).

Thomas Friedman talked about this in his book The World is Flat. He called it coefficient of flatness: the fewer natural resources a country or company has, the more it will dig inside itself for innovations in order to survive. It’s the sense of urgency that makes them survive, and the same principle applies to individuals.

I see this truth everywhere. Here are some examples:

  • World War II left Japan devastated. The crisis gave them a strong sense of urgency to work hard and rise. In 1980s, not only they did rise, they even scared many other countries with their rapid economic growth.
  • In the book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates said that a secret to Microsoft success is they always think of themselves to be in the losing side, and this makes them strive to be number one everyday. This attitude creates a sense of urgency which makes them work hard to survive in the highly competitive environment of IT industry.
  • Many students suddenly get a “boost in productivity” a few days before their assignments are due. Again, a sense of urgency is at play.


As you can see, sense of urgency is like magic. A touch of it can transform a person, a company, or a country to be highly productive.

The enemy, then, is comfort. 

Once someone is trapped in the comfort zone, he loses the sense of urgency. There is no reason for him to work hard and excel. He falls prey to the trap of mediocrity.

Perhaps this is the reason why many family businesses can’t succeed beyond the third or fourth generation. The younger generations are already in the comfort zone; they have lost the sense of urgency owned by the first generations. This also explains why many people do not grow, or grow only slowly, in their life.

So, if there is a lesson we can learn, that will be this: to be highly productive, we should introduce a sense of urgency into our lives.

Here are some tips to do that:

1. Set a challenging goal with a deadline

A challenging goal creates a sense of urgency that inspires us to work harder to achieve it. A good example is John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing people on the moon before the end of the decade. The goal was challenging, and it had a clear deadline. That goal inspired a whole generation of scientist to emerge and boost the productivity of the space program to a whole new level.

You can set a challenging goal for yourself. Maybe you want to reach a certain level of income or write a book. Whatever it is, your goal should be specific so that you know for sure whether or not you have accomplished it. Besides, your goal should have a clear deadline.

There is one thing to note: if your goal is challenging, you should give yourself enough time to achieve it. The goal of landing man on the moon was set in 1961 and achieved in 1969 – an eight-year time span. Without giving yourself enough time, your subconscious mind will reject your goal as impossible and you will only see failure.

2. Set a challenging deadline for a goal

In the previous tip, the goal is challenging, but the deadline is normal (that is, there is enough time for you to achieve the goal). You can also do it the other way: the goal is normal, but the deadline is challenging. Since we usually deal with normal goals in our daily life, this trick can be used on many occasions.

Suppose you have to write an article. That’s a normal goal – there’s nothing too big or challenging about it. But you can create a sense of urgency by setting a challenging deadline. This way you will be motivated to work harder and be more productive.

3. Set a minimum time to work on something

Deadlines give you a sense of urgency by setting a maximum amount of time to finish something. But sometimes it’s difficult to even get started. The task feels uncomfortable and we try to avoid it.

In such case, we can create a sense of urgency in a different way: by setting a minimum amount of time to work on it. Before the time is up, you may not stop working. This way, there is pressure to keep yourself going until you meet the minimum time limit, and you trick yourself to start working on an uncomfortable task.

4. Make yourself accountable

Another way to give yourself a sense of urgency is by telling other people about your goal. By letting them know about your goal, you will feel the pressure to achieve it and meet their expectations. This is one reason why I like to share my goals and visions with the people I meet. They keep me stay motivated and on track.

5. See yourself to be in the losing side

This attitude – which is used by Bill Gates in the example above – is important to avoid comfort zone. If we feel that we are already winning, there’s a danger that we will feel comfortable and slow down. So look around and find someone who is better than you in an area. Then put yourself on the losing side and creates a sense of urgency to keep the momentum going.

6. Be aware of potential danger

One reason we have no sense of urgency is we are not aware of the danger that is threatening us. If we can’t even feel the danger, how can we feel the urgency? So widen your perspective and see what’s going on in this world along with its potential danger.

In my case, reading The World is Flat introduces me to the danger of globalization. Globalization makes skills and advantages get commoditized fast and this danger also awaits me. If I do not find my unique strengths and force myself to grow, I can be a victim of globalization instead of a winner. Now that I’m aware of the danger, I have a sense of urgency to keep myself growing.


If you are interested in bringing a true sense of urgency to your organization contact us today!