Here’s a list of things I did before starting this newsletter: I filled out the documents to renew my passport; clipped my cat’s nails; bought some household items; responded to a few Instagram DMs; and ate a snack because I was hungry.
Some of those tasks were relatively urgent — I need to get my passport in order soon, and those Instagram DMs were weighing on me. But none of those tasks were as important as writing this newsletter. I know I needed to get this done, but the call of those minor-yet-urgent tasks was too strong.
To all of my procrastinators out there, I offer an explanation: Your brain is working against you, and it’s because of a phenomenon called the urgency effect.Our brains tend to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term rewards (you probably remember this from the famous marshmallow experiment). But a study from February found that subjects were more likely to perform smaller-but-urgent tasks that had a deadline than they were to perform more important tasks without one. This was true even if the outcome of the smaller task was objectively worse than that of the larger one.“Normatively speaking,” the researchers wrote, “people may 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, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs, or people want to finish the urgent tasks first and then work on important tasks later.”
In other words: Even if we know a larger, less-urgent task is vastly more consequential, we will instinctively choose to do a smaller, urgent task anyway. Yet again, thanks for nothing, brain.
So what are we to do? To answer that, let’s talk about boxes — specifically, one developed by our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Picture a 2×2 square with four boxes. At the top of the square are two labels: Urgent and non-urgent. On the left are two other labels: Importantand not important.On any given day, try to put every task you have to do into one of those four boxes. You’ll quickly see that the things tied to approaching deadlines are quite often not the most important things you have on your plate. Accordingly, schedule time to finish them later or, if possible, delegate them.
Similarly, it’s very likely you’ll wind up with tasks that don’t have a deadline and aren’t important. Immediately and aggressively remove them from your to-do list.
Two crucial bits I’ll leave you with:
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 what your ambitions are.
Once you’ve mapped out all of your tasks, embrace the magic of micro-progress and slice them up into tiny goals to make them more manageable.