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Our work day might be seen as a continual battle between what’s important and what’s urgent. Of course, sometimes tasks are both urgent and important. But often, there’s a choice between the two, and urgency wins.

We usually blame that urgency preoccupation on others: “They made me do it,” because those in question have more power or lack patience. But a good deal of the blame lies with ourselves and our urge for urgency.

A 2018 study looked at why we choose the urgent. Sometimes, of course, important tasks are also complicated and take more time, so there is a quicker payoff from attacking the more urgent items. But the researchers controlled for those factors and still found a tendency to pick the urgent over the important, even when the urgency was an illusion.

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“In other words, you’re psychologically predisposed to put off meaningful work in favour of tasks that feel more urgent,” blogger Jory MacKay notes in reporting on the study.

He points outs two psychological factors that boost this tendency. First, there’s completion bias – the high we get from crossing items off our to-do list, which the researchers tried to control for. As well, there’s tunnel vision, when you get so overwhelmed by your to-do list that you grab whatever is easily available.

But our habits run even deeper than that. Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at Johns Hopkins University, and one of the researchers in the 2018 study, found that when faced with identical tasks, we’re more likely to choose the one that feels urgent – even if it pays less or we get less in return.

Urgency is clearly powerful. It also puts us in reactive mode. “Instead of taking control of our time and attention, we’re at the mercy of someone else’s priorities. Even when we know that working on a long-term goal or hard project will ultimately be more meaningful and motivating, we choose the worse [more urgent] option,” MacKay writes.

He suggests using the urgency bias to work toward your long-term goals:

  • Break large projects down into smaller tasks: This is often cited to counter the tendency to feel overwhelmed by all that is involved in the big project and to find chunks that work into the rhythm of the day. But MacKay finds another virtue in the approach: If you’re more inclined to work on “urgent” tasks, breaking your large projects or difficult tasks into easy steps with short deadlines for each can be advantageous.
  • Use computer alerts to remind you of a non-urgent task’s benefits: Mr. Zhu found we’re more rational when reminded why non-urgent tasks are important to us. So use an alert to add some urgency and remind you of the reason for the task.
  • Switch from “task urgency” to “time urgency”: Urgency usually flows from a task that you don’t have control over – somebody else wants it completed, soon. But MacKay suggests balancing that pressure by establishing a non-negotiable time block each morning during which you must work on your most important task of the day. Now that task also has an urgency attached, or you squander that time block.
  • Gain more control of your time: The study found people who self-select as “busy” were more likely to prioritize urgent tasks just to get them out of the way. So avoid that busyness trap; take more control of your day. One tip he offers: Don’t let urgent tasks into the first hour of your day.

Give some urgency to fighting the urgency bias with those techniques.

Quick hits

  • Turn your smartphone to grayscale mode to dampen its distractive ability and appeal. Average daily screen time for college students who tried that technique was reduced by nearly 40 minutes, CNN reports.
  • Once we realize that the world around us is filled with people who are each wrestling with the psychological, emotional and practical issues we’re wrestling with, if not more, compassion is a lot easier to find, says entrepreneur Seth Godin.
  • Executive recruiter Gerald Walsh recommends candidates asking at the end of job interviews: “Have I answered all your questions?” The interviewer will appreciate that offer and may ask you to clarify an answer you gave earlier. It also might give you an indication of how well you’re doing.
  • Sales consultant Jill Konrath advises flexible slides for your sales pitches, in which you turn your narrative into a series of bite-sized presentations that can be selected based on the prospect’s interests. It becomes like a website or app with a strategic menu and navigation options that can be chosen according to interest.
  • Avoid PDFs for onscreen reading, warns the Nielsen Norman Group. They aren’t optimized for web reading, creating frustration and slow task completion. Use them only for documents that will be printed.

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