Time management: separating the important from the merely urgent

Do you find yourself constantly responding to emails and attending meetings, but never quite getting around to the things you really ought to be doing? Distinguishing between the important and the merely urgent can help.

While the impulse to deal with pressing problems immediately might make us feel productive, it does not always serve us well.

It’s easy to become caught up in the hamster wheel of everyday tasks without pausing to wonder whether all the important jobs that need doing are getting done.

This is a common problem because we have a bias towards completing urgent tasks regardless of their importance.

The result is we tend to put off completing important but non-urgent tasks. This could be completing that extra piece of work to build up your CV and help get the job you really want, or perhaps it’s going to the doctor to check out that lump you’ve noticed. Maybe you’ve been meaning to consolidate your superannuation or change energy providers but never quite get around to it.

This is a common pathology of governments too — there’s always something in the media the minister can respond to, and without discipline strategic work can easily fall by the wayside.

It doesn’t help that important, non-urgent tasks often involve uncertainty, a lot of work, benefits in the distant future or anxiety. We’re also more likely to put off tasks that involve high up-front costs. We put off dealing with such challenges for as long as we can, dealing with them at the last minute, or sometimes never.

But even after accounting for all these other factors, there’s something about a short-term deadline that distracts attention away from the importance of the task, according to a paper on the so-called “mere urgency effect” in The Journal of Consumer Research.

The authors write that there’s a trade-off between urgency and importance:

The restricted time frame embedded in urgent tasks elicits attention, diverting focus away from the magnitudes of task outcomes, and thereby leads people to exhibit the mere urgency effect,” they argue.

The paper suggests this may occur because uncompleted tasks stick in the mind, causing discomfort and prompting us to resolve the problem so we can move on, regardless of whether the task is actually important.

This tendency is particularly pronounced people who see themselves as being very busy, because their concern about lack of time leads to “chronically paying more attention to task expiration time.”

“We may sacrifice health, family, and other important aspects of our lives in order to focus on less significant activities with shorter completion windows, especially when we seem to be working more and perceive ourselves to be busier,” they say.

Research also shows that people see tasks with longer deadlines as being more difficult, resulting in more effort being invested. Often this is appropriate, but this perception of difficulty can also lead to more procrastination and, in the workplace, a higher chance of quitting.

The result is that when faced with a jumble of more and less important tasks with differing deadlines, people often prioritise less important tasks with shorter deadlines when they’d be better off refocusing their energy on what’s important.

Fixing the problem

While these cognitive biases might not be eliminable, taking a more conscious and structured approach can help identify where you might be going wrong and point you in the right direction.

The authors of the mere urgency effect paper highlight the importance of moving one’s focus from the deadline itself to outcomes. This has implications for both the workplace and policymaking, they believe:

“Our research suggests that interventions that shift people’s attention away from the completion windows to the final outcomes of everyday tasks should be particularly effective at attenuating the mere urgency effect, leading us to invest more time and effort in activities that matter most to our well-being as well as the long-run welfare of our institutions, communities, and society as a whole.”

At the level of personal time management, many advocate identifying and writing down a few — usually three — key tasks for the day. Taking time in the morning to write out what you want to get done that day can help focus effort by making plans and expected outcomes clearer.

Research also suggests that scheduling when and where you’re planning to complete those tasks makes it more likely they’ll be finished. Giving yourself too much time often means you’ll space the work out to fit the deadline, so setting an artificial deadline with an adequate — but not excessive — amount of time might push you to avoid procrastination.

Another common tool for righting the balance is the urgent-important matrix. US President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly used it to sort his priorities, dividing tasks into four categories: important and urgent, important and non-urgent, non-important and urgent, and non-important and non-urgent.

Quadrant 1 is the realm of crises and looming deadlines, and quadrant 2 is the all-important planning and strategy many neglect. Quadrant 3 is many phone calls, meetings and other distractions that are of minor value but need to be done by someone. Quadrant 4 is time wasters and trivia.

So when you identify tasks that fall into quadrant 3, delegate if possible. As for quadrant 4, eliminate the ones you can.

Finally, make sure you’re well-rested: sleep deprivation lowers self-control, so you’re also more likely to make bad or unethical decisions when you’re tired.

Why some people find it so hard to manage their time when working from home  and what to do about it

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