The 20-Second Litmus Test For "Urgent" Versus "Important"

Written by Leslie Carr, PsyD

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This post by clinical psychologist Dr. Leslie Carr will help you learn to take back control of your relationship with technology. If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, check out her course: How to Live Mindfully in the Digital Age.

At first blush, this post may seem almost silly—we all know an emergency when we spot one; don’t we? Actually, based on what I see happening in the world, it seems like a lot of people could use a refresher.

In this increasingly technological age, almost everything seems urgent. Our smartphones are like tiny, little hysteria machines—beeping and pinging, begging for our attention.

Our email inboxes are full with other people’s priorities—each arriving with their own sense of urgency.

But in reality, things are rarely truly urgent. Matters of life and death are urgent—the rest is just a matter of prioritization.

I was in grad school to become a psychologist when I first learned what the word triage means. I was working for the branch of the Department of Public Health that responds to psychiatric emergencies when a salty, old medical nurse explained to me, in his deep southern drawl, that it means “separating the chicken salad from the chicken shit."

(I told you he was salty.)

What he really meant was that, as emergency responders, we needed to be able to evaluate—on the fly—the truly urgent from the not-so-urgent.

Did someone feel suicidal? That was important clinical information.

Was that person standing on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge? If the answer was yes, we had a whole new level of urgency to deal with.

The ability to know whether something is truly urgent has never been more important than it is right now because often everything seems like it has to be dealt with immediately.

The texts, the push notifications, the message from your mom that she needs you to call her back right now—they all raise our cortisol levels and give us the impression that they can’t wait.

The constant barrage of requests for attention makes us lose our own inner ability to triage our priorities and to make sure, for example, that finishing your work assignment comes before you reply to that message on Slack.

The easiest way to determine whether something is an actual emergency is to simply pause before you respond and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is there something else that needs my attention right now more than this does?

2. Is anyone going to die if I don’t respond to this immediately?

Based on how you answer those questions, make sure that you do things according to their order of actual priority.

Achieving your goals may just depend on it.

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Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 25306). She offers therapy and coaching,...
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Join Dr. Leslie Carr for this mindfulness-based digital detox program design to help you overcome anxiety by transforming your relationship with technology.
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Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 25306)....
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