I've found myself thinking a lot recently about the concept of urgency. Covey's 7 Habits famously divided tasks into important/not important and urgent/not urgent. His observation was that we do the important and urgent things first, but then tend to move on to the urgent and not important, rather than the important and not urgent.

This describes a particular kind of externally-imposed urgency, the urgency of deadlines, fire alarms or ringing phones. But what about tasks where the urgency is up to you? Nobody's telling you that you have to work on your novel right this second with a gun to your head, at least unless you're Stephen King.

You could argue that anything self-directed is necessarily not urgent. But if it's not urgent, and it's never going to become urgent, when do you do it? You could start your novel today, you could start it tomorrow, the day after... In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter which you choose. What pushes you to say "no, I need to start now"? That's urgency, but it's urgency you've constructed.

One way of getting there is arbitrary deadlines. You can just say "I want to finish my novel by next year, which means I need to start now". But you know you just made that deadline up, and there are no actual consequences for failing to meet it. And who knows if it's even meetable? Even experienced authors have difficulty predicting how long writing will take them, at least unless they're Stephen King. The arbitrary deadline is just a facade; you know it's not real, so it can't really give you anything beyond how much you believe in it.

To create some real basis for your urgency, you can create real consequences. Public embarrassment is a good one, but I've seen people use money or other punishments. I've even seen a system with a big jar full of as many marbles as you have weeks of life remaining, and each week you move one marble into another jar. It builds a sense of urgency by reminding you that your life is slipping away week by week. This stuff gets pretty masochistic.

To me it seems like this is all trying to simulate that external urgency rather than embracing its absence. Maybe what you're doing doesn't have to be finished soon. Maybe it doesn't have to be finished at all. Maybe nobody, up to and including you, will suffer any serious consequences if you just find something else to do instead.

But the point is you decided to do this thing, and you did that because of its importance to you. Not because it had to be done, but because you wanted it to be done. Its importance is defined purely in terms of your values, and so too can be its urgency.

Then the question goes from "what happens if I don't do this right now?" to "what happens if I do do this right now?" It's not urgency caused by a fear of consequences, but by a desire for them. Sure, you could do it any time, but now is sooner than later. It's a low-pressure kind of urgency, more impatience than crisis.

And which things bring you the best consequences? If you have your values screwed on right, none other than the ones that are most important. Covey's two scales are only needed when urgency is out of your control. If you get to decide, then there's only one scale, from unimportant stuff with no urgency to important stuff to do as soon as possible.