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How do you choose what to do next?

Many people follow a protocol — they work their way through a list. Others jump on things as they come up — they prefer calendar reminders to stay focused on what they have to do every day.

Unless you have a real plan for tomorrow, you will have a bias that affects how you work profoundly. It’s called the urgency bias.

People are more likely to prioritise unimportant tasks (i.e. those with a low payoff) when there is a sense of urgency.

Urgency drives priorities

A team of researchers ran a series of studies to explore how we make decisions about tasks that are urgent, versus tasks that are important.

Wait – what’s the difference? Urgent tasks require immediate attention but are not necessarily important. They are things that have to be done now or messages that require immediate attention. Unimportant tasks are characterized by spurious urgency (i.e., an illusion of expiration).

Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode.

Important tasks have major impacts. They contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. But our brains tend to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term rewards.

We are more likely to prioritise a smaller-but-urgent task that has immediate deadline over a more important task, even if the outcome of the smaller task is objectively worse than that of the larger one.

Like most people, some of my days are filled with urgent, but often trivial tasks. Emails (lots of emails). Appointments. Catchups. Calls.

Every time I open an email, I have to make a decision, which interrupts my flow. The problem is, each individual email can make or break my next few minutes, the next hour, or even the whole day.

Rationally, importance should trump urgency. But in reality, we often get distracted by the urgent and procrastinate over the important.

People choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion whilst urgent tasks involve immediate payoffs.

According to research, when faced with a decision to choose between high-value work and low-value tasks, we choose objectively worse options over objectively better options. “People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence, ” the research found.

“These findings support our thesis that restricted time frames elicit attention, diverting focus away from the magnitudes of task outcomes and that this shift in attentional focus leads to a stronger preference for urgent tasks with low payoffs over important tasks with higher payoffs yet longer completion windows, ” the authors concluded.

The ability to distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s truly important is an essential skill

If you’re struggling to figure out whether something is important to you, spend some time looking inward to see if it’s truly core to who you are and whether they advance your long-term goals.

On any working day, while you may be tempted to stop and address many things that feel urgent, they may or may not be the most important issues to address.

A surprisingly simple but helpful way to overcome the urgency bias is to stay focused on your MIT’s (most important things). Give them time slots. When you do want to finish them? Assign timings to make them urgent. The easiest way to make sure an important task urgent is to give it a deadline.

Choose to do most of your MIT’s in the morning. Early mornings are great opportunities to make progress on important items with little risk of urgent matters interrupting.

Try to narrow down your daily to-do list to five things or less. It’s a good way to reflect on the most important tasks that need to be accomplished.

Find more ways of reminding yourself about the outcome of your MIT’s rather than the timeline and make this your focus (outcome salience).

However, what’s more powerful, is now you will be in a position to recognize what’s not on this list. This way when “urgent” matters come up, you can easily drop them or deal with them at designated times in the day. Become self-aware of your unconscious biases and you will focus more on important tasks.

Commit to this process of work for a few weeks. After a while, you’ll be surprised to see how much energy is spent on stuff that matters. When it comes to urgency, “strive for a bias-to-action”.

You’ll always have enough urgent tasks to fill up an entire day, week, or year. Spending most of your time, and energy accomplishing important things.

Originally published on Medium.

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