The Common Trait of Highly Productive People, Companies, and Countries

I read a lot about highly productive people, companies, and countries, and from what I learn, there seems to be a common trait behind them all. This trait makes the difference between the average and the superior performers.

The common trait is a sense of urgency.

A sense of urgency drives people, companies, and countries to work much harder than normal. It makes them work as if their lives depend on it (which, in many cases, is true).

Thomas Friedman talked about this in his book The World is Flat. He called it coefficient of flatness: the fewer natural resources a country or company has, the more it will dig inside itself for innovations in order to survive. It’s the sense of urgency that makes them survive, and the same principle applies to individuals.

I see this truth everywhere. Here are some examples:

  • World War II left Japan devastated. The crisis gave them a strong sense of urgency to work hard and rise. In 1980s, not only they did rise, they even scared many other countries with their rapid economic growth.
  • In the book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates said that a secret to Microsoft success is they always think of themselves to be in the losing side, and this makes them strive to be number one everyday. This attitude creates a sense of urgency which makes them work hard to survive in the highly competitive environment of IT industry.
  • Many students suddenly get a “boost in productivity” a few days before their assignments are due. Again, a sense of urgency is at play.

As you can see, sense of urgency is like magic. A touch of it can transform a person, a company, or a country to be highly productive.

The enemy, then, is comfort.

Once someone is trapped in the comfort zone, he loses the sense of urgency. There is no reason for him to work hard and excel. He falls prey to the trap of mediocrity.

Perhaps this is the reason why many family businesses can’t succeed beyond the third or fourth generation. The younger generations are already in the comfort zone; they have lost the sense of urgency owned by the first generations. This also explains why many people do not grow, or grow only slowly, in their life.

So, if there is a lesson we can learn, that will be this: to be highly productive, we should introduce a sense of urgency into our lives.

Here are some tips to do that:

1. Set a challenging goal with a deadline

A challenging goal creates a sense of urgency that inspires us to work harder to achieve it. A good example is John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing people on the moon before the end of the decade. The goal was challenging, and it had a clear deadline. That goal inspired a whole generation of scientist to emerge and boost the productivity of the space program to a whole new level.

You can set a challenging goal for yourself. Maybe you want to reach a certain level of income or write a book. Whatever it is, your goal should be specific so that you know for sure whether or not you have accomplished it. Besides, your goal should have a clear deadline.

There is one thing to note: if your goal is challenging, you should give yourself enough time to achieve it. The goal of landing man on the moon was set in 1961 and achieved in 1969 – an eight-year time span. Without giving yourself enough time, your subconscious mind will reject your goal as impossible and you will only see failure.

2. Set a challenging deadline for a goal

In the previous tip, the goal is challenging, but the deadline is normal (that is, there is enough time for you to achieve the goal). You can also do it the other way: the goal is normal, but the deadline is challenging. Since we usually deal with normal goals in our daily life, this trick can be used on many occasions.

Suppose you have to write an article. That’s a normal goal – there’s nothing too big or challenging about it. But you can create a sense of urgency by setting a challenging deadline. This way you will be motivated to work harder and be more productive.

3. Set a minimum time to work on something

Deadlines give you a sense of urgency by setting a maximum amount of time to finish something. But sometimes it’s difficult to even get started. The task feels uncomfortable and we try to avoid it.

In such case, we can create a sense of urgency in a different way: by setting a minimum amount of time to work on it. Before the time is up, you may not stop working. This way, there is pressure to keep yourself going until you meet the minimum time limit, and you trick yourself to start working on an uncomfortable task.

4. Make yourself accountable

Another way to give yourself a sense of urgency is by telling other people about your goal. By letting them know about your goal, you will feel the pressure to achieve it and meet their expectations. This is one reason why I like to share my goals and visions with the people I meet. They keep me stay motivated and on track.

5. See yourself to be in the losing side

This attitude – which is used by Bill Gates in the example above – is important to avoid comfort zone. If we feel that we are already winning, there’s a danger that we will feel comfortable and slow down. So look around and find someone who is better than you in an area. Then put yourself on the losing side and creates a sense of urgency to keep the momentum going.

6. Be aware of potential danger

One reason we have no sense of urgency is we are not aware of the danger that is threatening us. If we can’t even feel the danger, how can we feel the urgency? So widen your perspective and see what’s going on in this world along with its potential danger.

In my case, reading The World is Flat introduces me to the danger of globalization. Globalization makes skills and advantages get commoditized fast and this danger also awaits me. If I do not find my unique strengths and force myself to grow, I can be a victim of globalization instead of a winner. Now that I’m aware of the danger, I have a sense of urgency to keep myself growing.


You can choose the tips that work best for you. You might also have other tips I do not mention here. Whatever they are, the important thing is to introduce a sense of urgency into your life.

Photo belgianchocolate


  1. I’ve been wondering what this sense of urgency means and how it manifests in people’s lives. In my case, I have a quota of 600 this month. Last month, I accomplished 600 with the help of a few individuals. I know I can accomplish all 600 again by myself. The challenge lies in my own discipline and how hard I’m willing to work. The results are worth it. Maybe with my sense of urgency to finish everything, I can perform better. I guess this will be my little experiment.

  2. I’ve found that the #4 tip – Make Yourself Accountable – really works for me. I have tried on and off for years to make getting up at 5 am a consistent habit. I’ve never made it for more than a week at a time. This year I took it on again as a ‘monthly challenge’ project and put it on my blog, along with daily updates regarding my success or failure. I don’t even have to know if anyone is reading – or cares – I just know I’ve put it out there and it motivates me right out of bed every morning.
    Thanks for the article. Those other tips are some I need to put in place as well.

  3. […] Leadership by Example The Common Trait of Highly Productive People, Companies, and Countries […]

  4. Jen,
    That would be an interesting experiment. I agree with you that by introducing sense of urgency you will perform better.

    Yours is a good example of accountability. Putting your progress on your blog is a great way to introduce sense of urgency since the whole world could see it.

  5. […] the difficulty lies more with you than the task itself, generate a sense of urgency about the matter.  With this mentality, you can push yourself a lot further than you ever […]

  6. […] Here is an article, from a fellow Indonesian blogger, Donald, in his blog He has a great blog and I’m stunned by one of his article sharing “The Common Trait of Highly Productive People, Companies, and Countries.” […]

  7. […] This is among the most effective ways to defeat laziness. If you have a sense of urgency, it will be much easier to get up and do what you need to do. One way to create a sense of urgency is by setting a deadline. You can read more about it on my article about sense of urgency. […]

  8. […] This is among the most effective ways to defeat laziness. If you have a sense of urgency, it will be much easier to get up and do what you need to do. One way to create a sense of urgency is by setting a deadline. You can read more about it on my article about sense of urgency. […]

  9. […] This is among the most effective ways to defeat laziness. If you have a sense of urgency, it will be much easier to get up and do what you need to do. One way to create a sense of urgency is by setting a deadline. You can read more about it on my article about sense of urgency. […]

  10. This doesn’t work. Nothing makes me have a sense of urgency, and I can’t create one out of thin air. I am willing to be out on the street or die before I do something I don’t feel like doing.

    I just wanted to say that your article is a simplisitic way of viewing things.

  11. I agree with the poster who wrote on 10/30/08 – II.

    I hardly ever feel that sense of urgency. It would take a life or death emergency for me to feel that way. I’m currently unemployed but when I have had that sense of urgency (having to finish something quickly at work) or back when I was at school when something HAD to be finished, I was so VERY uncomfortable, I wanted NOT to feel that again. Who wants to feel that agitated and anxious – as if the world is coming to an end and you’re responsible for doing everything perfectly. My parents have often behave that way and I’ve done everything to do to avoid feeling that much PAIN. Even though I haven’t given up, I can totally relate to street people who have given up.

    Urgency = anxiety and that seems like a lousy way to live.

    There must be some other ways to overcome procrastination.

    • I believe it’s perfectly possible to not procrastinate, get the job done, then relax, you’ve earned it by meeting or exceeding the goal. Sense of urgency like multitasking works for some better than others.

  12. […] it is what Kotter’s framework for Change Management really does.  Once you’ve set that sense of urgency people tend to work harder than normal, get more done – they find a way! Forming A Powerful […]

  13. This may help to reduce lazyness but increases pressure on someone. And makes life difficult not enjoyable. And also increases the -ve thinking of mind. This will give success thats true at the same time kills your confidence..

  14. In reply to II and Julia, who don’t feel a sense of urgency or dislike the feeling – it sounds like urgency is an unpleasant thing. I understand it feels like a kind of anxiety but if the goal is something you really, really want to achieve, then the whole experience becomes a more exciting, adrenaline-filled thing. And when it’s done, as it probably will be due to the urgency, there is a huge sense of fulfillment. So I would say the key is finding the thing that fires your spirit, something you can really put your heart into and then the urgency will be mixed with fun.

    • Great comment, I think you said it all. No matter how much we love something, or know it is necessary and important, there’s a part of us, as Alexandru said above, that will constantly push us down. Sounds cliche, but our own worst enemy is really ourselves.

  15. Really enjoyed this post!

  16. […] just read an article on The Common Trait of Highly Productive People, Companies, and Countries. It is about the sense of urgency. I came to realize what I have lost when I read this. I lost the […]

  17. I think we are noobies to the sense of urgency, we have to use it and to take it very serious. The things that get me most motivated is to always finding new content about personal improvement.

    I think the thing we must understand is that we got a coward inside of us, that doesn’t like to work hard, and we can trick him to do it, it is our responsibility to act on him as if he were someone else.

    I know we can do better because there are a lot of people who do it better in less time, the knowledge and the power exists, we are all capable of doing it, we just have to keep the focus on the things we want.

    If we really focus and we are disciplined and we get good results we will keep on this road.

    Stay out of comfort zone, let go TV and other entertainment, work on yourself. The satisfaction you’ll get from a finished project of yours is much bigger than any comedy that has ever been shown on TV.

    We must accomplish changes in our life style that will make us stronger and more productive. I’ll give an example, a girl of age 17 doesn’t like to cook and to clean the house, she hates it, she sees it impossible, but when she turns 25 and she has a baby and gets married, even if she still doesn’t like it, in about one year she will be the most responsible mother on earth, taking care of her kid, cooking, cleaning the house, and doing all of that in a very effective way. So there is nothing impossible, we are capable of everything, but we must seek our way to the top with trust in ourselves.

    We live about 100 years but if we want to be wise now and not when we’ll be 90, we have to study more the life itself, be more aware of what is going on and how we can act to change things.

    I wish you to understand that pain is part of the changing process, you will feel unconfortable but you must keep trusting yourself and go on. We were nowere without sacrifice, and you can turn that sacrifice into fun, yes you can, if you set a goal that you most want, what you really like to do.

    Best regards,

    You can be defeated because you refuse to try.
    Life is a challenge that you are not allowed to lose.

  18. […] Dangers of Complacency The Common Trait Of Highly Effective People Motivation Keys – The Importance Of Focus Posted in Goals | Tags: Awareness, Living, […]

  19. After reading this article, I can understand why I like my older car and managers tell me I am missing a sense of urgency. In their eyes, I don’t look successful driving an older car but my clothes say another thing that I feel good. Naturally, I dont want a new car but never understood my fascination to drive a car 10yrs older than everyone else on the road. I have a built in mechanism to make my daily life a challenge and refuse to allow the comfort zone to kick in on my job which includes knocking doors. Then, when I get home I gotta play mommy and let the comfort zone overwhelm me. Thanks for the article and now i can tell my boss i understand urgency and can use it as a tool, but lay off about pushing me to get a new car. Some women will find the balancing act of a more challenging job in sales vs a secure happy family life is the ultimate challenge. if they are true sales people they will find a way to get out of their comfort zone on a regular basis seeking thrill. But i do not recommend sales and a family at the same time for any woman and emplore recriters to understand this about women.

  20. I would say that I’ve already made habits out of tips #1 through #5 throughout the past few years, which have yielded me average results. I am, however, unstoppable when I get the sense of danger creeping around as number 6 suggests, the problem is that I’ve only felt that way whenever there truly has been an immediate threat (basically, leaving things for the last minute despite telling myself every single day for the past month or two about the thing I should have gotten done as soon as it fell in my task list, but somehow finding an excuse every day for not doing it until the sense of urgency kicked in). This is an excellent article, thank you Donald. Do any of you have any ideas on how to “widen your perspective”?

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