How to Act Quickly Without Sacrificing Critical Thinking
Urgency is an intrinsic element of business success. But while a focused sense of urgency can catalyze action to meet the challenge at hand, unbridled urgency can be counterproductive and costly. Leaders at every level encounter tension between reflection and urgency to act. But “analysis paralysis” is not the solution. If you’re too deliberative and slow to respond, you can get caught flat-footed, potentially missing an opportunity or inadvertently allowing an emergent challenge to consume you. To balance these two extremes, you need reflective urgency – the ability to bring conscious, rapid reflection to the priorities of the moment – to align your best thinking with the swiftest course of action: 1) diagnose the traps that keep you in an elevated state of urgency; 2) bring focus to the right priorities; and 3) avoid extreme swings between reflection and action. When you combine these micro-reflections with a heightened sense of urgency, your decisiveness and speed to impact will not be at risk of the counterproductive habits and unconscious oversights that occur when you act without your best thinking.
An unbridled urgency can be counterproductive and costly. If you’re too quick to react, you can end up with short-sighted decisions or superficial solutions, neglecting underlying causes and create collateral damage in the process.
But if you’re too deliberative and slow to respond, you can get caught flat-footed, potentially missing an opportunity or allowing an emergent challenge to consume you.
To balance these two extremes, you need reflective urgency — the ability to bring conscious, rapid reflection to the priorities of the moment — to align your best thinking with the swiftest course of action. In my work, coaching leaders at every level through a variety of management dilemmas, I’ve developed three strategies to practice reflective urgency:
Diagnose your urgency trap. To get started, you need to identify what’s limiting your quality thinking time — the habitual, unconscious, and often counterproductive ways that you push harder to get ahead when you feel the pressure of too many demands.
Common urgency traps include: ending one meeting prematurely, only to rush to the next one with more unfinished business; multitasking during work that requires your complete presence and full attention, which only diminishes the quality and accuracy of your output; saying yes to projects that dilute your contribution and burn your energy, when selectively saying no is the wiser choice. Traps like these keep you stuck in triage mode. In this mindset, taking time out to reflect on your intentions and actions feels like a luxury you can’t afford.
But if you’re able to spot your trap, then you can stop the self-defeating habits that keep you in a constant state of elevated urgency.
For example, Jenna was a new manager struggling to adjust to the dueling pressures of delivering her own work, while keeping the team accountable for theirs. Trying to get it all done without any drop in performance, her urgency trap was an involuntary shift to extreme command-and-control. In her words, “Everything felt like an urgent crisis, so I acted like it was.”
This mindset triggered knee-jerk reactions to overinvolve herself in delegated work and to communicate harshly by bottom-lining every email, one-on-one conversation, and team discussion. The result was that her team felt increasingly micromanaged and less engaged in their contributions. And because Jenna’s conversations were all rushed and impersonal, she failed to deepen relationships and establish trust within the team.
To stop leading with such an acute sense of urgency, Jenna made two changes. First, she got better at learning from her own experience. When demand spiked and she felt the instinct to control things as a means of staying ahead of the curve, she got out of her own way and followed through on previous delegation. Before sending an email to demand a progress update, she paused to review the timeline and task completion agreement already in place. This helped her avoid micromanaging the team, and it freed up time for her to focus on the big picture.
Second, Jenna implemented a new communication habit to shift her leadership presence from cold and excessively direct to engaging and supportive. Before each conversation or meeting, she quietly considered two questions: What impact do I want to have on my team right now? When I walk out of the room, what words do I want them to use to describe my influence? For Jenna, these two questions were straightforward enough to start applying immediately. The reflective act of pausing, to review delegation agreements and to consider her communication impact, was enough to jolt her out of the autopilot mode fueled by her urgency trap.
Once you diagnose your own urgency trap, you can bring the same thoughtful reflection to your critical moments to disrupt the pattern.
If you’re unaware of what your trap is, answer the following prompt to explore it: “When the demands I face increase and my capacity is stretched thin, a counterproductive habit I have is….” Once you pinpoint the initial behavior, the unproductive thinking that holds it in place will be evident.
Bring focus to the right priorities. Another problem is the unconscious tendency to focus on less important work, because we enjoy it or we’re good at it, at the expense of our highest priorities. Chris Argyris, the influential MIT professor and organizational thinker, showed how routine behaviors like this can become accepted norms when we fail to recognize and challenge ourselves to address them.
This was true for Marcus, a senior leader who developed a habit of obsessing over administrative tasks. The busier he got, the more he slipped into tactical mode, in order to get things checked off his to-do list as quickly as possible. It helped him feel productive, but failing to delegate these tasks meant he never had time to focus on longer-term, strategic issues.
To shift this pattern, Marcus applied a quick reality test during pivotal moments of transition throughout his day. The task was to fill in the blanks to complete this sentence: “I’m tempted to work on…, but I know I should focus on…”
On the surface, this question seems obvious. But for Marcus, it was precisely the simplicity and ease of application that helped him combine reflection with quick action. The thoughtfulness embedded in the statement triggered a deliberative choice, one dictated not by the urgencies of the moment or easy tasks that felt gratifying to accomplish, but by his honest assessment of his highest priorities.
Avoid extreme tilts. In a perfect world, you would fluidly pivot from reflection to action, but that’s not the world you inhabit. You cannot reduce the demands you face, nor can you afford to attack them with the reckless abandon of unchecked urgency. But you can recognize that not every issue requires the same approach. Depending on the situation, you can consciously, and subtly, turn down or dial up the required elements of reflection and urgency.
Haruto was the VP of sales for a technology company. In the midst of a major new product launch, he knew that he had to think very carefully about his team’s strategy, but the pressure of impossible deadlines was constant. As a result, Haruto vacillated between the extremes of thoughtful reflection and urgent action. On some issues he flexed toward too much deliberation, got lost in the details, and became bogged down with analysis paralysis. As a result, he appeared aloof and indifferent to others, and his response to emerging issues was slow and ineffective. But with other issues, he swung toward urgency. With a mindset of “react first, think later,” Haruto spent more time cleaning up his hasty decisions than he did making them.
Haruto recognized that he needed to stop the pendulum swing and focus more on the subtle tilts toward greater urgency in some cases and a reflective stance in others. To do this, he used a 60/40 breakdown as a logic model to increase his situational agility. For each initiative, he assessed whether success relied more on urgent action or thoughtful reflection. If he determined that a 60% focus on action was required (e.g., for tactical, routine work), Haruto would shrink the time and attention devoted to the work in order to favor efficiency. But if deliberation mattered more and action was only valued at 40% (e.g., for relationship-defining moments, innovation-specific work, etc.), he expanded the time and deepened his focus to allow for dynamic thinking.
In some cases this was as simple as adding 20 minutes to an agenda to avoid the temptation to rush and leave half-considered issues on the table. In other instances it was a matter of scheduling shorter meetings, or setting self-imposed timelines to not get lost in the weeds.
As you evaluate your daily responsibilities, avoid the temptation to treat every initiative the same. Knowing that you need the best of both — and that a perfect 50/50 split is unrealistic — make the subtle tilts toward reflection and action as needed to get the balance right.
Like Jenna, Marcus, and Haruto, you can take these steps, at any time and in any sequence, to increase your capacity for reflective urgency. When you combine these microreflections with a heightened sense of urgency, your decisiveness and speed to impact will not be at the mercy of the counterproductive habits and unconscious oversights that occur when you act without your best thinking.
Jesse Sostrin, PhD is a Director in PwC’s Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. The author of The Manager’s Dilemma, Beyond the Job Description, and Re-Making Communication at Work, Jesse writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success. Follow him at @jessesostrin.
How to Act Quickly Without Sacrificing Critical Thinking
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