Urgency

You're driving on a highway. There is a passing lane to your left and two cars in front of you. Those two cars have been about the same speed since they appeared on the horizon. Maybe the car behind is a tiny bit faster. You're clearly faster than both cars.

As they get closer, you get ready to pass them both and move to the left lane. When you're a few feet away, the second car turns on its signal light and comes into the left lane with you.

You hit the brake, slowing down to their speed. You're stuck. Two lanes filled two slow cars and no room to pass.

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I drive between cities enough where this has happened a lot. What frustrates me the most about situations like this is that the second car only makes a move when I come up! Until then, the two cars have been together for as long as I've seen them. I wonder what goes through their mind!

Why not pass earlier? Are they just "in the zone"? Not paying attention to their speed? Most people don't use cruise control when driving between cities, but they're paying enough attention to see me and move into the passing lane without hitting me.

Do they see a faster car and think, "I could be going that fast"? They never speed up much after moving to the left lane, making me slam my brake (until we're all well below the limit, I might add). So that's probably not it.

Do they think, "I'm never going to get past this car if they pass me"? Maybe they don't think at all? Maybe they felt they could realize the opportunity (some dude's passing, so I should pass)? They probably (absentmindedly) don't think themselves to be a shitty driver by making me slam on my brake!

It's ridiculous! That realization could have happened anytime after they saw me in their rearview mirror. Why'd they move right as I was about to pass? They know there are no other cars behind me!

The petty and sad answer is, "I don't want anyone else to go faster than me." There are people like this, but you can't fight with stupid here.

All the thoughts that could happen incite some urgency (except the last, which incites pettiness). Maybe they think and feel some combination of all of them.

The driver of the second sees me coming up and thinks, "I could be going faster, but I'll wait for them to pass." Then when I am close, you know, "they're taking a while to get up here, so I should pass now." Then when I'm right behind, "YOLO, I'll make it."

Once their maneuver has me less than a car length behind them (instead of a collision because I slammed on my brakes), I like to imagine they're thinking, "Damn it, I'm the asshole here." More likely, they're cursing me out for tailgating.

It's all in the urgency.

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It's a ticking clock. If you've ever seen the TV series 24, you've heard the audible tick-tock when something serious is happening. It builds suspense and makes you feel like this time he's not going to diffuse that bomb! Of course, he always does.

Retailers do this all the time. Especially online. "Three remaining in store," "free next-day delivery if you order in 2 hours", or (maybe the worst) "quote saved for 15 minutes" entices people to make a purchasing decision before the ticking clock runs out.

I've sorted these retail examples by order of legitimacy. Inventory in store and delivery times actually have real and tangible logistical impacts, so there is some legitimacy in exposing that information to incentivize the sale. It's not always scummy.

The time-limited quote is a by-product of dynamic pricing where sometimes retailers increase your sale price for just you (using identifying information) when you visit the page for a new quote. It's entirely artificial. Airline tickets and apartment rentals are the worst offenders.

But it works. When my apartment quoted me and added a time limit of 3 days, what choice do I have? On next day, the non-quote rent price bumped up by $10. I wasn't going to let them get away with it (even though they'd get the $10 anyways by the term length).

Research into consumer psychology pretty clearly tells us that purchasing decisions are emotional. And it's pretty easy to goose things along.

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I think the traffic example is one of urgency at its worst, but it's a great reminder that people are emotional. We make many (bad) driving decisions because it pushes us to safety. While we're in tunnel vision and distracted by our thoughts, the sight of a faster car strikes our instincts. We've got to make sure we don't get left behind. Or, get stuck behind a really slow car.

But urgency at its best makes people get things done. Straying away from perfectionism, startups that ship incomplete features that make their customers happy become more successful than startups that fix every bug and edge case. And it's true for customer service -- if you break SOP because a customer needs something different, you're driven by customer urgency over process perfection.

Good urgency is motivated by chasing ideals and firm ethos about the world. It's something we should design incentives for if we're serious about pushing ourselves to do good things and putting out work out there.

Bad urgency is motivated by emotions and instincts from within. Often, it's fear. It takes a lot of self-honesty about a situation to take control of our actions in the face of artificial urgency.


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