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Imagine you’re facing a typical, busy weekday. You’ve got a long to-do list, including some work on a pivotal project, and an inbox full of email messages. In this situation, many people would choose to hit “Inbox Zero” before turning to more crucial tasks.
This approach probably isn’t in our best interest — but it’s not entirely our fault, either. According to research, humans are predisposed to choose urgent tasks, even when it hinders our progress on more meaningful work. It’s called “urgency bias.”
This past year, I contracted Covid-19. Though I’ve made an almost full recovery, the experience served as a wake-up call. I started to wonder how I could overcome my predisposition toward urgent matters and leave more time for important work, like making headway on long-term goals at JotForm, and spending time with my family. Luckily, there are strategies for overcoming, or at least working with, our urgency biases.
But first, a closer look at the findings on this all-too-familiar psychological disposition.
Why we choose worse options
When we consider the reasons behind choosing more urgent tasks, we might guess it’s the quick-win factor. It makes sense that we knock out those emails because it offers an immediate payoff—one less item on our to-do list.
But according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, “[we choose] objectively worse options over objectively better options” based on which feels more urgent alone. This “illusion of expiration,” or belief that a task holds a more pressing deadline and needs to be done right away, will motivate us to work on it — even if it provides a lesser (or even no) benefit.
What’s more, researchers found that the effect was compounded for people who felt their lives were particularly busy. With the added pressures and responsibilities of the pandemic (for example, entrepreneurs and full-time employees suddenly playing homeschool teachers), we’re more vulnerable than ever to the urgency bias.
It’s worth taking the time to consider whether you’re more susceptible these days and strategies for taking control of your efforts. Here are three to start:
1. Consider the outcome
Recently, during our standing Friday demo day (via Zoom), I shared with my team at JotForm how I see our business like a puzzle — in the center is our original product, the Form Builder. As we grow, we add to the puzzle, with new products and tools like Reports, Apps, and more recently, Tables. Accomplishing each of these long-term projects requires rising above the urgent tasks of the day and reminding ourselves of the big picture.
According to Meng Zhu, a consumer behavior researcher at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the urgency bias study, one of the keys to combating our innate bias toward urgent things is to think about outcomes before rushing into a decision.
Ask yourself: Is this really important?
So, when I’m struggling to choose between tasks, I try to focus on the outcomes — which one will contribute to our puzzle? Then I can figure out which is truly important.
2. Schedule important tasks and projects
It’s a simple trick that has surprisingly powerful results: blocking out time for an important task will increase the likelihood that you’ll tackle it, rather than spending valuable time answering all those unread Slack messages.
In fact, research shows that scheduling when and where you’ll do something makes it significantly more likely that the task will get done.
You can block out more time depending on how important the project is.
As Alice Boyes writes in Harvard Business Review, “For very important and long-avoided tasks, I like a strategy that I call ‘clearing the decks,’ which means assigning a particular task to be the only one I work on for an entire day.”
I have found this technique especially useful as we’ve transitioned to fully remote work. Without the usual in-person interactions with my colleagues, it’s easy to give short shrift to collaborative work and focus on what I can accomplish on my own, siloed in my home office. But, as I’ve discovered over the years, our best, most innovative products and solutions come through all-hands-on-deck collaborations. So we schedule weekly video conferences to ensure that we’re still getting the interactive work time that we need, perhaps now more than ever.
3. Break larger tasks into smaller ones with deadlines
Let’s say you have an audacious goal — like writing a book. One of the problems with getting started is feeling overwhelmed. You might not even know where to begin. So you start researching for a new desk to buy instead.
To fight this tendency to avoid the goals that intimidate us, try breaking them down into more manageable parts.
Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., a workplace productivity coach and speaker, explained to Trello, “Breaking tasks down helps us to see large tasks as more approachable and doable, and reduces our propensity to procrastinate or defer tasks, because we simply don’t know where to begin.”
Importantly, be sure to give yourself a deadline too. In doing so, you can lean into your natural tendency to prioritize the urgent and make progress on that big, audacious project.
Learning to ignore the urgent
“A central part of the ‘new normal’ will be a more human-focused way of working, one built around what actually makes us productive and what makes us thrive.”
Learning to ignore the urgent and prioritize the important can help us to work better and thrive. It may be challenging, unnatural even, at first. But hopefully, with the above techniques, you can work with your innate biases and keep adding pieces to the puzzles that inspire you. That, and spend more quality time with the people who refuel you.