Why You Need a Sense of Urgency in Your Art Business

A number of years ago, I attended a mastermind meeting that had a consistent theme running through it.

The most successful people have a sense of urgency.

I believe this to be true because those I view as successful act quickly and decisively. They hustle. They get things done.

If we take it at face value, the phrase sense of urgency seems turbulent. It sounds like we should be moving hastily and acting immediately on ideas without much thought or care for anything else.

It’s Not Really About Hurrying

As I read more about a sense of urgency as it relates to business, I discover that it’s not necessarily about hurrying.

©M.Rees, Wasser at Night. Ink on wood, 50 x 33 inches. Used with permission.
©M.Rees, Wasser at Night. Ink on wood, 50 x 33 inches. Used with permission.

John Kotter, who wrote the book A Sense of Urgency, says the following.

True urgency focuses on critical issues. It is driven by the deep determination to win, not anxiety about losing. Many people confuse it with false urgency. This misguided sense of urgency does have energized action, but it has a frantic aspect to it with people driven by anxiety and fear. This dysfunctional orientation prevents people from exploiting opportunities and addressing real issues.

Michael Hyatt gets to the point.

Cultivating a sense of urgency is all about producing results. All the stuff that it takes to produce results—paperwork, approvals, processes, committees, and budgets—are not an end in themselves. They are only the means. If you do all this and don’t accomplish your goals, you have lost.

Too often people think that the objective is to complete their task list. If they do so, they think they have actually accomplished something. This is not necessarily the case. Tasks are a necessary but insufficient condition of achievement.

Hyatt explains that it’s not about the tasks or how you get there. It’s about staying focused on the desired outcome.

6 Ways to Adopt a Sense of Urgency for Your Art Business

1. Know what you want.

When I think of successful people, I think of people who know exactly what they want.

Success doesn’t seem to strike people who are wishy-washy and vague. Success doesn’t have time to wait for you to figure out what you want.

©Kerry Steele, Budding. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Used with permission.
©Kerry Steele, Budding. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Used with permission.

When you don’t know what you want, you create that frantic urgency around tasks that don’t matter in the long run.

My course, the Art Biz Accelerator, helps you set your priorities while giving you a system for increasing your income, which you can use repeatedly throughout your art career.

2. Be clear about why you do what you do.

This isn’t always evident, but it will change the way you work. If your purpose is as I suspect—to communicate with the world through your art—you will begin to understand how critical it is for you to get the work out of the studio and in front of people.

You will see that self-expression is only a small part of your purpose. It’s more about the connections you make with the rest of the world.

3. Favor action.

Don’t spend unreasonable amounts of time looking for the best technology, taking another class, or searching for game-changing answers. These can be forms of procrastination in order to avoid what is much harder.

Do. The. Work.

4. Build on momentum.

Successful people are constantly improving and innovating. They never think they’ve gotten to the top.

Yes you need a little rest thrown in, but you must also build on your successes before people forget about them.

5. Get to the point.

You’ve got to learn to summarize and bullet point your thoughts and ideas. The busy people you’re going to be dealing with during your career don’t have time to make sense of your rambling thoughts.

©Kathi Thompson, Eel Grass Safety. Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches. Used with permission.
©Kathi Thompson, Eel Grass Safety. Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches. Used with permission.

Learn to speak with brevity and impact and, Please!, write shorter emails.

What’s the bottom line?

6. Try speeding things up.

I know I said it isn’t about hurrying, but there has to be a little speed on the trajectory to success. Simplify your systems and environment so you can respond more quickly to opportunities.

How does a sense of urgency show up in your art business and career? If it doesn’t, what can you do immediately to instill this in your work life?

This post was first published in 2014. It has been updated with the original comments intact.

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36 thoughts on “Why You Need a Sense of Urgency in Your Art Business”

  1. Great post Alyson. For me, a sense of urgency (not frantic panic) begins with believing that what I am doing matters. Maybe that sounds self-important but I don’t mean it that way, not exactly. People seem to respond to my work and I think it fills their hearts a little too. I know it fills mine and that alone would be reason enough for me to keep moving forward.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I think of urgency as a process of mentally juggling art ideas that I want to complete. When I’m doing that, I’m always refining and tweaking how I am going to get there–so I would call it excited hurrying. The supporting part is doing all of the other stuff (framing, entering shows, working with art orgs) that also makes it work. I agree with Dorothy–believing in what you are doing is key.
    Alyson, I’m surprised you didn’t squeeze “Omaha” in there somewhere! I’m a big Broncos fan, too.

  3. Victoria Pendragon

    I have, by nature, a strong sense of urgency around anything ‘important.’ I actually have to work to combat it to some degree because that false sense of urgency – the one that is built into our DNA for survival reasons – can merge with it and make me into the MUST-BE-DONE-NOW monster if I’m not conscious of what is going on with my biology.
    What I have found works best for me to quell the rising tide of urgency that I live with is first, the whole being conscious thing and second, (and this may seem counter intuitive, but it works for me), pre-setting my deadlines, in other words, getting things done ahead of time.
    I live by my calender, so I schedule even the minutest part of what needs doing, ensuring that everything is scheduled to wrap at least one day ahead of time. Just doing that – scheduling – relaxes me. And, of course, it ensures that everything will be done, as it needs to be done, and in time to deal with any ‘issues’ that may arise.

  4. Had not realized the entry deadline for the Clinical Trial Patient Engagement App competition was coming up so soon…So I read this blog post, & hurried to complete my submission & the App itself! Done! & Thank You! (You can see the App by clicking on my name)…

  5. Wow – again something to chew on. Your posts are always thought provoking, Alyson!
    I have spent the past 5 years trying to get rid of the sense of urgency that has driven me – that gotta gotta gotta mentality.
    It’s still an effort (that is my default mode), but I find that I enjoy my life so much more, and I am open to opportunities that present themselves to me, rather than chasing after them. They seem to be a better fit, as well.

  6. I can’t agree that a feeling of emergency is necessarily false urgency. More like, negative urgency. Whereas that focused sense of high priority is positive urgency. Some things do necessitate quick action albeit without panic. I suspect that the word urgent was never really intended to mean panic stricken action, but it has come to do so. Perhaps because we are a society of procrastination?
    As for American football, it is a sport that has an unacceptable number of associated debilitations, not the least of which is CFE dementia. I am not a fan. But if I was I’d be a Ravens fan.

  7. Great post Alyson. Understand the Why. When we realize the(very individual)reason we each make art, it brings clarity in who else is going to resonate with your work. I spent time writing and asking the question of myself in a journal to find the answer.
    Now, about your choice of Superbowl team winner…..Go ‘Hawks!

  8. I lived in Romania last year. Coming back to the US I was struck by our general culture of “hurry, hurry”. I am striving to achieve balance and calm in my life. This means prioritizing, so that the most important things have urgency and get accomplished, while I spend less time with the unimportant. Here I am guided most by the 2×2 model from Stephen Covey in “7 Habits…”: importance on one dimension and urgency on the other. When we spend time planning effectively we reduce the amount of time that is spent in crisis mode (important and urgent) and also reduce time in the unimportant across both urgencies. Thus through planning and centering myself I strive to devote most of my time to important but not urgent (meaning I have time to finish prior to the deadline).

  9. To me a sense of urgency involves a period of time that ultimately has an ending. Sometimes you’re in control of the ending and sometimes others are. If you have a project you want to complete, you have more control over the ending. Then there’s the show or exhibit you wish to participate in and someone else has set the deadline. Where you happen to be in the particular stream of time will automatically create a sense of urgency or even panic if the work hasn’t been done. Also how you feel about the task at hand also has bearing. If we are somewhat apathetic in that we don’t really care if a project is completed or if a deadline is missed, urgency doesn’t exist. For example I’ve received notices for show entries, but by the time I get them the deadlines are often within a short time. If it was something truly desired then obviously there would be a greater sense of urgency and I would have to make adjustments to meet such a deadline. But, if it wasn’t on the high end of priorities for me (less desire) then I probably wouldn’t care if I was in the show or not. So, urgency can be effected by where you are in the stream of time in relation to something that has an ending as well as the desire you have in obtaining whatever reward awaits you by successfully reaching that end, which in turn will likely have an effect on your work ethic between the interval of start and end.

  10. Excellent post! This is perfect for me at this time. For instance, I have a deadline for a new “about me” by one of my retailers. “Why do I do what I do”….cause I can’t help myself…ok I won’t put that in there :). Anyway thanks for the great tips. I noticed on one of the links it mentioned that the word for 2013 was “Simplify”…can you remind me what the word is for 2014? Thanks

  11. I liked this posting because it hit home for me. As a creative person I have always had that sense of needing to hurry if I had an idea about some new art project or a piece of jewelry that I wanted to make. I think, for me anyway, it was because I know that inspiration is oftentimes fleeting and if you don’t move on it the moment it hits you, it can leave you just as quickly.

  12. This is a great posting and raises many good questions. A trick I have been learning is to figure out what is truly urgent and needs immediate attention, and what feels urgent, but can really be put aside for awhile. I tend to be driven, motivated, and determined. But sometimes urgency to do, do, do, and plan, plan, plan, is unhealthy. I learned this last year as I did too many shows/exhibits, and pushed myself hard to get my business and art really going. I burned out by the end of the year. I took over a month off to re-focus, evaluate, ask hard questions, and get a new focus for this year. I slowed down, did no shows, enjoyed the holidays, and painted only if I felt like it. That was the best thing I could have done. I entered this new year refreshed, with a new focus on how I want to run my business, new ideas for art, and less shows on the calendar so far. This feels like a much healthier balance, and to me, that is the key. Balance. I am learning to not schedule as much, let some things just unfold, and not try to control every little detail. And I feel happier with this new perspective.

  13. I may be misreading some of your comments, but I am not sure I got across the key point that “sense of urgency” isn’t about hurrying. (My bad for putting the two together.)
    It’s about focusing on what is most important and keeping your eye on the big picture and big goals – about not getting distracted by Facebook, Twitter, email, and the like.
    When you have a sense of urgency, you are able to prioritize and say No to what doesn’t fit with your goals. You know that by doing this you will find the shortest path to lasting success.

  14. This concept really resonates with me. I’m a procrastinator, so I need to ‘hurry hurry’ myself in order to make sure I’m moving towards goals. The first element, finding the ‘WHY’ of my artistic endeavors, has helped immensely – now that I’ve clarified that in my mind I know where I want to be, so every day it’s just telling myself ‘nope, you’re not gonna watch TV all evening after the kid goes to bed, you will work on one of your patterns’. It really doesn’t matter what I end up doing, whether it’s working on a new piece or updating my art-related profiles on the social networks or going back to something I started ages ago and experimenting with it again to see if I can move it forward. As long as I ‘lay down my bricks’ for the day, as this wonderful comic on a somewhat similar subject suggests: http://doodlealley.com/2011/10/19/brick-by-brick/

  15. I like the concept and agree with it, although I prefer to think of it as “being intentional” about my creative work. If you know your intent, then you can remain focused on it by subjecting each action you take to this test: “Is this action moving me closer to or farther away from my intention?” Asking this question about everything on my to-do list has made a difference for me.

  16. This post reminds me of a quote from a book I read: “Living life’s purpose, while embracing Joy. . . sustained by Hope.” It’s become my art biz mantra.
    Much of my life I have put aside my art to care for my family. Now, I finally have the time, money for materials, and a beautiful place to work. I am sharing my passion for art by teaching others in my community. But my personal dream (for myself) is work as freelance artist, marketing my artwork to children’s magazines and/or to greeting card companies. I also have a children’s book I need to finish. My biggest roadblock has been distractions.

  17. I have an artist friend who is very successful and has a remarkable work ethic. He says the reason he works so hard at his art is that opportunities present themselves rather suddenly. He wants to be ready and have his best work in his hands when an opportunity arises. It’s that type of excitement and optimism that urges him to act on an artistic idea.
    There is a tendency for me to let a good idea simmer too long, putting my art on the back burner. I think what you are saying is to make my art a front burner issue. The urgency is not frenetic, but grows from a desire to make more and better art on purpose.

  18. I think that as we get older we better understand that life is short and that we better figure out what it is we’re here for. Now. This lends a certain calm urgency (calm, because we’ve been around the block a few times and know that hysteria never works). If we’ve done the work of introspection,we’ve narrowed things down. We’ve found that one idea, that one dream, that keeps popping up year after year, pushed down time and again for any number of reasons. Then finally we realize that we ignore it at our own peril, understanding that regret lasts for a very long time.

  19. -Reminders on brevity, not rambling is great.
    -For those of us who went from career to kids and now back to professionalism, it’s a reminder that you’ve got to get that objectivity back because your audience has changed!

  20. Almost every day I have a drive, and excited urgency, to create art and learn learn learn. It’s very strong, and I create a lot of art! Although I want to get more of my art “out there,” (I really do) my drive to do that work is much less and the inertia is very hard to overcome. It’s like herding cats. Argh.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      OH no! Your work is marvelous, Geri. I hope you are able to create that sense of urgency around getting it out there.

  21. My first clear sense of urgency related to making art came when I shifted from painting representationally to painting abstractly. All of a sudden, I wasn’t painting pretty landscapes. Lots of people paint pretty landscapes. I realized that the abstract paintings are paintings that only I could paint, so I’d better get myself in gear and get them out there!

    On a more tactical level, urgency (determination to complete something by a fast approaching date) helps me focus, act, and complete my work. I don’t have time to fret and fuss and worry. I aim to do the very best I can, rather than aiming for perfection.

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