Urgency vs. Pressure

Acting on Priorities

I often talk about the negative impact of mental pressure. But I am occasionally asked whether some pressure isn’t good.

For example, a member of the Thinking Lab observed, “Just the right amount of pressure is desirable and beneficial…. I believe in values pressure — a good thing if you have good values — where your values and your morality put pressure on you to take certain actions and to prioritize your tasks in a certain order.”

I agree with the intent, but not the formulation. I would put it this way: a certain amount of urgency is desirable and beneficial. Your values and morality give you a sense of urgency to take certain actions and prioritize your tasks in a certain order.

Not pressure. Pressure is a related but distinct concept. Pressure is the experience of having warring action imperatives: conflicting, urgent goals, which both feel like they need to be pursued now. Both are highly automatized, and the conflict cannot be dispelled with common-sense arguments. If you attempt to pursue one of them, without dealing with the conflict, you will have an experience of pressure.

Let me explain why. For the purposes of discussion, let’s stipulate you decide to take the action you label as the one you “should” take as opposed to the one you “shouldn’t.” (I put “should” in scare quotes, because I do not believe you can know what you ought to do until you have dealt with the conflict.)

Taking the action you “should” without addressing the urgency of the one you “shouldn’t” requires suppressing everything about the action you “shouldn’t” take. But because it is urgent, this “shouldn’t” will keep coming back, and it requires vigilant suppression to put it out of mind. That vigilance reduces mental functioning. It takes up mental “crow” space for thinking, and blocks out some of the ideas coming out of the subconscious. It reduces your operational intelligence.

In practice, you can experience the pressure as coming from either temptation (to do what you “shouldn’t”) or resistance (to not do what you “should.”) When it’s temptation, you are perfectly aware of the conflict, and of the effort you have to expend to avoid paying attention to the temptation in order to do what you “should” do. When it’s resistance, the reasons for the resistance are often repressed (as a result of repeated suppression). You experience the action imperative in a mysterious wave of nonverbal resistance when you try to take the action you “should” do.

Whichever way it occurs, pressure results in a state of reduced mental functioning. To put it simply, the problem of pressure is the problem of experiencing urgency that motivates you in two incompatible directions. That is the problem that needs to be addressed. Ultimately, the solution for eliminating pressure is to align your values so that all motivation is pointed in the same direction.

Urgency that motivates you in one direction is not a problem. When you have one clear purpose, and a sense of urgency to act, you forge ahead toward your goals. In fact, I would argue that you need some sense of urgency in order to act at all. Urgency is the mover in motivation.

Therefore, the challenge of self-motivation is not just to figure out your priority action for right now; it is also to eliminate pressure so you can create an authentic sense of urgency to take action.

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