Is It Urgent or Is
by Robin L. Silverman
The other day I opened my Email and saw the word
"URGENT!" in the subject line of one of the
messages. I looked at it curiously, because this
individual, a business associate, knew from experience
that I would respond quickly to any message she sent. I
also knew that the challenge she and I were facing
together was important, but not life-threatening. So I
answered her question in the same polite and prompt
manner as I had been, adding as a P.S. "It’s not
necessary to write ‘URGENT’ in your subject line.
You know I always respond to you."
The incident gave me flashbacks to a salesperson who
also flagged every voicemail message she left me with
"URGENT!" in spite of the fact that she, too,
received timely and polite responses. I quickly learned
that she and I had very different definitions of what
"urgent" meant, which diminished all of her
communications to me. When our business was concluded, I
removed her name from my Rolodex.
However, both these women exhibited a trend that is
causing tremendous stress both at home and in the
workplace today. We think far too many things are
"urgent." We feel like they bearing down on
us, demanding answers. But are they really? Are we
really trapped, in danger or overlooked so frequently
that we must scream for help or response? Or are we in
simply perceiving ourselves into a state of unrelenting
Because I know how devastating stress can be to our
mental, physical and spiritual health, I found myself
asking, "What is ‘urgent’ anyway?"
I immediately flashed back to a wonderful dinner with
our friends Kitty and Mike, who have three very active
sons. As we were savoring our coffee, we suddenly heard
a crash so loud that I immediately jumped up from the
table to investigate.
Neither Kitty nor Mike looked up. "Where are you
going?" she asked gently.
"Didn’t you hear that???" I gasped,
anxiety dripping from every word as I imagined small
children trapped beneath heavy furniture.
She shrugged. "Did you hear a scream? Do you see
blood?" I had to admit that the answer to both
questions was no. She called downstairs.
"Boys?" There came a sheepish reply: "It’s
okay, Mom." She smiled at me. "Sit down and
enjoy your coffee."
After years of experience with her rambunctious
progeny, she knew what was urgent and what wasn’t.
Whatever had fallen, she would clean it up and/or fix
it. But without an immediate threat to life or limb, it
could wait until dinner was over.
Several years later, our region was devastated by one
of the worst floods in modern American history. Peoples’
homes and businesses were wiped out, but miraculously,
no one died or was seriously injured during the
evacuation, even those in nursing homes, hospitals and
jails. "Urgent" then was whatever saved life,
not money or property.
What is "urgent" to you?
Because I frequently talk about the invisible forces
within and around us, people eagerly share their stories
of narrow escapes and life-transforming coincidences
with me. As a result, I’ve learned that there are
basically two types of people: those who think stress is
part of life, and do everything in their power to fight
it, and those who use stress as an opportunity to gain
clarity and energy that empowers what they believe is
right and good. For the former, words like
"Urgent!" are part of their daily vocabulary.
Everything is a problem that needs to be solved right
now, usually by making persistent demands or
raising their tone of voice. The latter has an easier,
less stressful time of it, as they only use radical
words when a building is on fire or someone’s life is
at risk. They have traded "Urgent" for
"absolute," the deep-seated belief that
beneath the chaos lie the answers and contentment we all
Replacing crisis with confidence
Just recently, I discovered a great way to replace
"Urgent" with "absolute." Maria, my
wonderful singing teacher, handed me a list printed on
rose-patterned paper. "These are my artistic
standards as your singing teacher," she said. There
were ten of them. Each one was a value statement,
clearly expressed and followed by a reason for its
inclusion on the list. On it were things like,
"When preparing for a role or performance, all
music must be worked with the Instructor before singing
it in public. This ensures you are doing your best
work in public as a professional."
"Students will call if they are going to miss a
lesson before the lesson is missed. This shows
respect for your Instructor’s time."
"All students will sing in foreign languages. This
broadens your horizons and makes you a well-rounded
She had not only clarified what she expected of us
and why, but what we would be likely to gain as a
result. She had taken her frustrations with our communal
reluctance to be our best and transformed them from a
source of stress to a foundation for her personal peace
And that wasn’t all. When I finished reading it,
she pointed to another rose-patterned paper attached to
a bulletin board over her desk. "I didn’t feel
right just telling my students my values and
expectations of them," she said. "I felt I had
to do it for myself, so both you and I would know what
you can reasonably expect of me."
I walked over and read them carefully. They included
things like, "I show respect for my students by
always being on time." She had been late for
lessons before this, always for good reasons, so seeing
it on the list was something of a surprise. She laughed.
"Well, I tried it for the first time the other day.
As I was enjoying a long, hot shower, I looked up, and
there were my values on a piece of paper taped to the
bathroom mirror. As much as I wanted to stay in the
water, I said, "Gotta go!" I jumped out and
got dressed right away."
After we’d gone through them all and talked them
over, she smiled gently. "You can’t even begin to
imagine how peaceful I felt after I did this," she
said. "It makes things so much easier."
"Clarity will do that," I responded,
"especially clarity about what you DO want, as
opposed to what you DON’T."
I thought about the two women who were leaving URGENT
messages. I wondered if either of them ever thought
about the attitudes and beliefs that motivated their
unnecessarily overly-dramatic action. Did they feel good
leaving me messages like that? My guess is that they
didn’t, and neither did I as their recipient. I had to
force myself to deal with them, creating stress where
none was necessary. I kept hoping that at some point, I
would be able to see more of the good in them while
staying true to what was right and good in myself.
Frankly, it was a nearly impossible task.
How much better for them and me it would have been if
they had done as Maria had, making a list of what they
valued so they could ask themselves if their actions
were reflective of the best within themselves. My guess
is that in doing so, they would have chosen other
beliefs, attitudes and words before acting, thus
reducing their own stress rather than mindlessly
spreading it to others.
The origins of stress
If you reflect, you will often see that the stress
you feel is not because of what is actually happening to
you, since few of us ever put ourselves or find
ourselves in a place that is truly dangerous or
life-threatening. Instead, much of our stress comes from
what we think about what isn’t
happening at the moment. We are worried about the
future, or angry about the past. The women who left
"urgent" messages for me were worried that I
wouldn’t call them back and that they would be left
without answers in the future. In spite of the fact that
their experiences told them this would not be the case
with me, their history with other people must have led
them to believe otherwise. So they reacted to a fear
rather than act with confidence and trust.
Coming home to ourselves
But how do you stop wandering off into the uncertain
unknown? How can we come home to ourselves before we
alienate others? A simple exercise starts the process.
Simply jot down ten things that are bothering or
worrying you right now. Because our attention is
naturally drawn to try to eliminate what is annoying or
hurting us, most people can do this in under two
When you’re through, keep your pencil or keyboard
ready and try to list five specific things that make you
feel happy or peaceful. Do not use generalities like
"my family" or "a sunny day." Like
your list of pain, go for details: "the smile on my
three-year-old’s face when I walk in the door" or
"hearing from my boss that my research was
When I introduce the pleasure part of this exercise
at my workshops, the response is interesting. What
should be enjoyable often brings groans and resistance.
"This is really hard!" a woman exclaimed at
one event. Others chimed in with "I can’t do
it!" and "nothing’s making me happy right
now." I had to call for a break to let them clear
their minds and refocus.
Defining what’s value-able makes the
Knowing our values enables us to handle whatever
stresses come our way. We become value-able.
Just listing them isn’t enough—we need to see them
in action in our imaginations, including the results
they yield both for ourselves and others. In other
words, we need to be aware of why we have
chosen to live by these particular principles. I began
to see the genius in Maria’s decision to write down
the second sentence for each of her statements. For if
she had simply said, "All students will learn music
in foreign languages," she still would have had to
force us to make the effort, creating stress for her and
us. But because she gave us reasons why she made her
choices, we could see that we weren’t being punished,
but protected from our own smallness.
Another thing Maria did not do was make an action
list. Defining values is not the same as setting goals
or making a "to do" list of tasks. Maria could
have said, "My goal is for every student to learn
how to sing in a foreign language," but again, she
would have faced the stress of having to pull us along
every step of the way. If she had written, "Buy
music in foreign languages. Pass out to students"
few if any of us would have understood the passion and
commitment that flowed through her decision. By painting
a picture of values, she was inviting us into a more
professional world, not holding a gun to our backs as we
trudged towards it.
Whose values are you living?
Most of us grow up with the values of other people,
including our parents, teachers and friends. In
addition, as we go out in the world, we’re bombarded
with the ideas and actions of our co-workers, bosses and
people we hear about in the news. As a result, most of
our beliefs are a complex mix of values that may or may
not be our own. Even if they make us restless, angry or
unhappy, few of us will challenge or replace them. So we
go along, feeling the tug of what we have been told is
"urgent." Yet underneath, there is something
just as demanding of our attention: our spirit, urgently
trying to get us to come home to the individual divine
good we were meant to express.
Even though I have done a great deal of
self-development work, Maria’s papers made me realize
that I had never written out my values, even in my
personal mission statement. I was always focused on what
I do for others, not what results or why I
believe these actions are important. I never asked
myself, "who am I if these things are true?"
Thanks to Maria, I began to see that in order to
become value-able, I needed to do two things. First, I
had to be more specific about the results my values
would bring both me and those I served. Maria started at
what she believed was a happy ending for all—singers
who exuded confidence, creativity and top-notch vocal
skills. Although she may have begun with a vague desire
like, "I want to help my students be better
singers," she relieved the stress of wondering
"what does that mean?" by writing down ten
very specific responses that she knew were true to her
own experience and would likely work for others. If her
students accepted and responded to her challenge, they
would be the best they could be, which would make her
the teacher she wanted to be.
After clarity, I knew I would need to consistently
apply my beliefs to my words and deeds. This was no
small task. As my mother would say, "talk is
cheap." I continually resisted putting my money and
time where my mouth was. For instance, for a long time I
talked about how much I wanted to write a book filled
with the stories people told me, because I knew they
would inspire others. But when it came time to organize
my day, everything else came before my writing or
interviewing. The distractions weren’t planned, of
course, but I still allowed them to be
"urgent," taking precedence over my
value-driven actions. What should have taken months took
years, with the procrastination causing me stress every
day. My "writer’s block" never happened
because of a blank computer screen. Rather, it was
because of my lack of personal clarity about what was
valuable to me.
Although I have rarely used the word
"urgent" in my life, I realized that I was
much like the women who had left me those messages. I
often walk through my day with an imaginary machete in
my hands, flailing away at what is "urgent"
because it relates to a fear or frustration. On those
days when I prioritize according to a specific, higher
belief, I’ve noticed that many of my stressors
disappear unless I start responding to other peoples’
Now you might question, "How can you possibly
avoid responding to other peoples’ demands or
stress?" Although I’m still learning, I believe
that the answer lies in one of two things: either
letting people own their own problems, or helping them
recognize what is valuable to you, whether or not they
accept it for themselves.
For example, I now know, without any question, that
Maria expects me to sing in a foreign language. If I
refuse to do so or cannot, she will have to consider
dropping me as a student. The same is true with people
who insist that their emergency should be yours. If it
is, act on it. If not, try a line I learned from a book
on management: "You’re right! I can see that you’ve
identified something that’s a real problem for you.
Let me know how you handle it."
There’s another stress-reducing benefit in defining
and expressing your values. It helps other people define
theirs. It doesn’t matter if your friends, family,
co-workers or neighbors agree with you. By announcing
what is right or wrong for you, they get to react,
showing both you and them where their own values lie.
How to discover what makes you
To start clarifying your own values, use your gift of
Intention. Most of us only state our intentions at our
weddings, where we say things like, "I intend to
love, honor and cherish you." To form a clear
intention, think not of actions but of results
you wish to experience. For example, "I intend to
wake up peacefully beside you every day." Then give
a reason why. "By looking at you with love and
gratitude for your place in my life, I will be
expressing what I know helps to build a good
marriage." You might add, "When I start my day
from a point of peace rather than mulling over a list of
what I have to get done, I stay healthier and happier,
which benefits me and everyone I love."
Do this for the areas of your life that are most
critical to you—health, family, home, career, money,
religion, politics—whatever lights your spark.
Remember to stay away from making a list of actions,
like, "Kiss spouse. Get out of bed singing. Have a
good day." Those are not necessarily bad things,
but you could easily go through a list of actions
without ever having much feeling for what you are doing
To test your choices, stay awake to what you are
thinking, saying and doing as you go about your day.
Play the game of observing yourself from time to time.
Pretend that you are an invisible friend sitting in the
corner, watching and taking notes on this character
named you. Think of the character as an actor or actress
that you can direct. When you "see" things
going off course, stop the action mentally and ask
yourself, "what would I have to believe or value to
behave or think like this?" Change the focus and
mood before continuing.
In the end, you are likely to find that calls for
your "urgent" attention diminish as you
attract more and more experiences that feel right and
good to you. Act on these, and feel your stress start to
disappear as you respond to your inner knowing, rather
than your fears. Things that are "urgent" tend
to disable us, trashing our carefully-planned schedules,
confusing and upsetting us, forcing to react without
forethought or care. On the other hand,
"value-able" actions make us stronger, keep us
on task, help us grow and allow us to connect
meaningfully to others. Is it urgent or is it valuable?
Let all that is good in you decide.
© Copyright 2002 Robin L. Silverman. All Rights Reserved.
Robin L. Silverman helps
individuals and businesses create the future they want by focusing
the power of their inner brilliance on the results they desire. She
is the author of "The Ten Gifts" and "Something
Wonderful is About to Happen" (January, 2003). In addition, she
speaks on topics like, "Get the Monkey Off Your Back" and
"Decluttering Your Communications."
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