How many times have you started the day with a solid plan only to get caught in a whirlwind of emails, calls, meetings, and other “urgent” tasks that take over your entire day? While it’s easy to try to blame this on distraction alone, the truth is that there’s something deeper at play: the “urgency bias.”
A recent study out of Johns Hopkins Business School found that “[we choose] objectively worse options over objectively better options” based on which feels more urgent.
In other words, you’re psychologically predisposed to put off meaningful work in favor of tasks that feel more urgent.
This is bound to happen from time to time. But spending all day chasing “urgent tasks” can leave you feeling exhausted, unaccomplished, and burnt out.
So how do you balance your long-term goals with the daily onslaught of “urgent” tasks?
What is the “urgency bias”? Why your brain is wired to chase short-term needs over long-term goals
There are lots of explanations as to why it’s so hard to ignore urgent tasks.
From a psychological aspect, there’s the completion bias. This explains how our brains chase the “high” we get from crossing off small to-dos from your list.
Then there’s tunnel vision—when you get overwhelmed by your to-do list and opt for what’s most available to you. (Which is most likely emails, calls, meetings, and other low-friction tasks).
However, both of these assume you’re choosing an easier task over something potentially harder. But that’s not always the case.
Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at Johns Hopkins University discovered that even 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.
In one experiment, Zhu gave participants the option of a task with a deadline in 10 minutes or one in 24 hours.
The task itself was exactly the same and could be completed in just 3 minutes (meaning even the deadline was meaningless). The only difference was that the task with a more “urgent” deadline paid out $5 less.
Despite both tasks being identical (other than their deadline), more people chose the lower-paying task!
|Task 1||3 minutes||10 minutes||$20 gift card||X|
|Task 2||3 minutes||24 hours||$25 gift card|
As Zhu writes:
“People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.”
The participants actively chose to get paid less simply because one task felt more urgent than the other.
Urgency creates priority (not the other way around)
You can probably think of moments where this same situation has happened to you. Maybe there’s a task that you know is important and has been on your to-do list for weeks but keeps getting bumped because similar, seemingly more urgent tasks keep taking its place.
As Lila MacLellan writes in Quartz at Work:
“We often deceive ourselves into believing that getting X done now will give us the freedom for Y later, when in reality we let too many other tasks flood in.”
Urgency puts us into 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 option.
The problem is that you’re constantly bombarded with “urgent” work: emails, meetings, calls, status updates, etc… While the things that get you closer to your long-term goals most likely take long stretches of focus: Writing, design, coding, even just planning and deep thinking.
One way to think of the difference between “urgent” and “important” tasks are in how we actually complete them. In a paper by Duke University professor N. Katherine Hayles, she differentiates between what she called Deep Attention vs. Hyper Attention.
- Deep Attention is focusing on a single object or task for a long period of time while ignoring outside stimulation or interruptions.
- Hyper Attention is switching focus rapidly between different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, and seeking a constant high-level of stimulation.
While most of us would benefit from periods of Deep Attention, it’s more common that we spend our days in Hyper Attention. The urgency bias (as well as the pace of the modern workplace) forces us to try to focus on multiple things at once.
But what about prioritization?
When most people talk about ignoring urgent tasks, they bring up prioritization. Specifically, using methods like the Eisenhower Matrix—a simple four-quadrant square that helps you identify important tasks.
However, this only works if you have the time to recognize that a task is urgent and then categorize it. (Which doesn’t happen when you feel like it needs to be done now).
As MacLellan writes in Quartz:
“The matrix can’t protect you from incoming email and text messages if you respond to them before you’ve even had a chance to sort them by priority… Before you can remember to write down ‘respond to text from mom’ in your Eisenhower box, you’ve already written back to her.”
Fighting the urgency bias: How to use it to work towards your long-term goals (instead of being distracted from them)
While the urgency bias can force us into low-value work, you don’t have to be a slave to it. With a few small tweaks, you can lessen its impact and even use it to help you do more meaningful work.
Here are a few steps to take if you feel like your days are being driven by urgency:
- Break large projects down into smaller tasks. If we’re more inclined to work on “urgent” tasks, setting more urgent deadlines can push you forward. Break down large projects or difficult tasks into easy steps. Then, set a short deadline for each. For example, instead of saying I’m going to write a blog post this week about the best project management books, I might break that up into different tasks. First, research for 30 minutes. Then, outline for 60 minutes. And finally, write the first draft by EOD.
- Use Alerts to remind you of a non-urgent task’s benefits. In Zhu’s study, she found we’re more rational when reminded why non-urgent tasks are important to us. Simple reminders—such as a written goal or alert—can nudge you back on track.
- Switch from “task urgency” to “time urgency.” Urgency most often comes in the form of a task which you don’t have control over. However, if you focus on “time urgency” instead, you can choose what gets your attention. For example, set a non-negotiable time block each morning to work on your MIT (most important task). This creates a sense of urgency towards not missing that block rather than getting pulled into other things.
- Take steps to feel more in control of your time. Zhu’s study also found that people who self-select as “busy” were more likely to prioritize urgent tasks just to get them out of the way. We’ve written at length about how to avoid “the busyness trap”. At a minimum, set aside blocks of time for emails and meetings so they don’t sneak into your focused time. And whatever you do, don’t let urgent tasks into the first hour of your day.
If you want more help understanding where your time goes, RescueTime is a powerful time tracker that gives you insights, reports, and tools for taking back control of your day.
Simply install it on your devices and RescueTime will automatically observe how you spend your time, tell you when you’re most productive/distracted, and help you hit your short and long-term goals.
Finally, you have to accept and make a plan for the urgent tasks that threaten your long-term goals
While you can use these strategies to lessen the impact of the urgency bias, urgent tasks will always come up. Instead of letting them take over, have a plan for exactly how you’ll deal with them.
Start by clarifying which tasks demand 100% of your focus and which can be done with more frequent interruptions. You want to give your most focused hours to your most important tasks.
As author Jocelyn K. Glei explains:
“Interruption is inevitable these days, so it’s useful to proactively plan for distractions as you sketch out your workflow rather than pretending they’re not going happen.”
Next, create if/then statements for exactly what you’ll do when an urgent task tries to take your attention away. If/then statements are concrete plans for what action you’ll ideally take when something urgent pops up.
As MIT professor Bina Venkataraman explains on the TED blog:
“For example, you might decide: If I realize I need to respond to an email, I’ll jot down a reminder in a notebook so I don’t forget to send it later.
“The more concrete your actions, the better the if/then ritual works. Focusing on positive actions—stating what you will do vs. what you won’t do—is particularly powerful.”
Finally, it can actually help you do more meaningful work if you make more time for urgent tasks. In the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, the authors describe the concept of slack—unscheduled time that offers a cushion for when emergencies come up.
The idea is that the more filled up your schedule is, the harder it is to deal with unexpected and urgent tasks. When those things come up—and they inevitably do—your entire schedule implodes and you end up working late or burning out.
Instead, set aside blocks of time for urgent tasks before your day starts. If you don’t need to use them, you’ll still end up ahead.
Urgency outperforms most other forms of motivation
If urgency is part of our genes, then we need to learn how to use it to our advantage.
Instead of letting the urgency bias take over your day and get in the way of working on your long-term goals, turn it on its head and use our natural biases to get more done, focus when you need to, and feel more accomplished and productive at the end of the day.
How do you fight the urge to chase “urgent” tasks all day long? Let us know in the comments below or tell us on Twitter.
One other factor that makes us chase “urgent” tasks, and not mentioned in the article, is the feeling that not doing that task can put us in a disadvantageous position. For example, we can feel that not answering an email or a message rapidly can make us lose a chance for something, or maybe avoiding that someone else takes a certain detrimental desition for both or the project because of not wanting to wait enough for us to answer them. I think that that is something to be considered as well regarding our reasons to categorize some things as urgent and going after them before everything else, and, in some cases, they can be justified reasons.
Thank you for sharing insights. I was thinking if it’s okay with you if I share few of your articles with my audience (on podcast, YouTube and blog), do that we can help more people. As of now I have only handful of audience but making a small difference means a lot 🙂
Looking forward to hearing from you
(Getting 1% better everyday)
Hey Swanand. That would be just fine with me! Happy to help you and your audience get a little bit better each day.