Why we prioritise urgency over importance
Monday, March 5, 2018/
It was 1954. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood to give a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Wishing to communicate the dilemma of the (then) modern man, Eisenhower referred to the words of a former college president who had said: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
The Eisenhower Matrix
Fast forward to the 1990s and time management guru Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People introduced the “Eisenhower Matrix” to a new audience keen to master productivity. Put simply, the Eisenhower Matrix asks that you define tasks along two dimensions – urgency and importance – and attend to them accordingly.
In theory, that sees us prioritise tasks that are both urgent and important, while ignoring those that are neither. We then turn our attention to scheduling tasks that are important but not urgent, before tackling those that are urgent but unimportant. Or do we?
Urgency trumps importance
Some new research has been looking into the murky world of how we choose between tasks that vary in their importance and urgency. More specifically, if you have one task that is not urgent but important (like switching superannuation funds), and another that is urgent but not important (like watching the latest episode of Married At First Sight), how do you choose which to do?
Rationally, and theoretically, importance should trump urgency. But in reality, we often get distracted by the urgent and procrastinate over the important.
To test this, researchers Zhu, Yang and Hsee ran a series of five experiments that involved people choosing between tasks that had either a high and low payoff, and were either urgent or not.
For example, after being assigned a five-minute (urgent) or 50-minute (not urgent) deadline, participants could choose to solve six string letter tasks (i.e. typing a string of letters in reverse order from “rlgows” to “swoglr”) for 12 cents (low payoff) or 16 cents (high payoff).
The researchers found people in the urgent condition (five minutes) were significantly more likely to opt for the low payoff (12 cents). In one test, 35.3% of people chose the low payoff when they were in the urgent group, compared with only 13.9% in the 50-minute condition. In another, the results were 48.1% vs. 7.3%.
Urgency drives priorities
What does this tell us? People are more likely to prioritise unimportant tasks (i.e. those with a low payoff) when there is a sense of urgency.
Further, the researchers were at pains to ensure the sense of urgency was just that – an illusion. In other words, people had more than enough time even in the urgent condition to complete the task, but they felt a heightened sense of urgency anyway.
This they dubbed the “mere urgency effect”, where the salience of urgency diverts our focus from task importance. In short, the reality of how we prioritise Eisenhower’s Matrix is different to theory.
According to the researchers:
“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 research also revealed:
- The mere urgency effect can be nullified by being reminded of the outcome at the moment of choice (for instance, being reminded that you are choosing 12c rather than 16c at the point of decision). This is called “outcome salience”, where attention is shifted from the timeframe to the outcome.
- People were more likely to mention thoughts of the deadline than the outcome when they were in an urgent condition, suggesting it was playing on their mind.
- People who perceive themselves as being busy are more susceptible to the mere urgency effect because time is on their mind.
Tips for you
As this latest research attests, it is not the bookends of the Eisenhower Matrix where the challenge lies. It is pretty clear that urgent and important tasks should be prioritised, and non-urgent, unimportant tasks ignored.
The challenge lies in the middle, where you have to make decisions about where to focus your attention. Unfortunately, our psychological make-up suggests that (ostensibly) urgent issues will tend to usurp importance, and that can mean we waste precious resources on the wrong things.
Of course, that means to get people to take action you could instil a sense of urgency, but crying wolf may only get you so far. False urgency will erode trust very quickly.
To overcome the mere urgency effect in yourself you should:
- Seek ways of reminding yourself about the outcome rather than the timeline and make this your focus (outcome salience);
- Stop thinking of yourself as ‘busy’ (a time-related construct), and instead think of yourself as ‘productive’, which is more outcome related; and
- Consider mindfulness techniques to disconnect yourself from perceived urgency, calming your mind and giving you greater perspective.