Suppose you have two tasks before you.
One isn't that important but needs to be done quickly. The other is important but isn't urgent.
Often, people will choose against their self-interest to do the urgent but less important task, a new study has demonstrated. What's more, the busier and more overwhelmed you feel, the more likely you are to pick the urgent task.
The study, published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research, confirms some of our worst fears: We are often horrible at setting and following priorities, and the modern world is only making the problem worse.
"Sometimes, we are so busy thinking about the time frame and urgency of things that we forget or lose sight of the outcomes. We don't ask why or whether we even need to do things," said Meng Zhu, a consumer behavior researcher at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the study.
The paper grew out of Zhu's frustrations with her own decisions in life. She found herself putting off important personal things on her to-do list – such as going to see her doctor – and cluttering up her days with pressing tasks such as responding to emails, which often amounted to little.
She received a wake-up call a few years ago, she said, when several close friends discovered they had late-stage cancer – conditions that possibly could have been caught with earlier diagnoses, she said. It made her look hard at how she prioritizes the tasks in her life.
"If you think about it, an annual checkup could save your life, but we – or at least me – I always delay it because there's no deadline. There are always presentations or papers that are due tomorrow," Zhu said.
Trying to understand the psychological mechanisms behind this behavior, Zhu and her co-authors at two other universities designed experiments.
Over several sessions in a lab, they presented 124 people with two tasks, both of which involved writing product reviews.
The only difference between the tasks, the subjects were told, was the reward randomly assigned to each – three Hershey's Kisses for completing one task and five Hershey's Kisses for the other. Almost everyone picked the task yielding the most chocolates.
But then, researchers added the element of urgency.
They told another group of subjects that one task had to be completed in the next 10 minutes and the other in the next 24 hours. And the researchers made sure that what the volunteers thought was a "randomizing" program on a computer always assigned the more urgent task the lesser number of chocolates.
Despite that, 31 percent chose to work on the more urgent but less rewarding task.
In follow-up experiments, the researchers used money instead of chocolates. Again, once the element of urgency was introduced, many started choosing the more pressing task even though it earned them less.
And in surveys, the authors found that people who felt especially busy in their lives were much more likely to choose the urgent task.
"It suggests that people who feel busy all the time become chronically sensitive to time pressure," Zhu said.
"It's as if they lose sight of objectives and pursue tasks simply to get them done."
This idea of urgency bias, of course, is not new to consumer and behavioral research. It is, for example, why stores offer limited-time sales, and why hosts on Home Shopping Network say, "Call now while supplies last."
"The interesting finding here isn't just that time durations are a factor in decision-making but that they can actually change the calculus of decision-making," said Ashwani Monga, who was not involved in the new study but is a longtime consumer researcher at Rutgers University.
We often think of our time as a means to an end, Monga said.
"But this shows that by simply giving things a shorter time span, you can shift people's attention from the key factor of payoff to time itself."
In other words, time stops being a means to an end and becomes the end itself.
The worry that we are focusing on the wrong things in life has plagued humankind since ancient times.
"Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days," says the Bible's Epistle to the Ephesians.
In more recent times, a commonly used decision matrix has been created based on President Dwight D. Eisenhower's principles to help people sort tasks into their most crucial ones (both urgent and important) and ones to avoid (not urgent and not important).
The matrix is based on a quote attributed to Eisenhower: "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."
In the past decade, there has been a growing body of scientific research focused on decision-making, attention and self-control. Much of the work suggests that as our time and attention come under ever-increasing pressures, it is changing us as a society and individuals.
Zhu has become especially aware of the need to put important things in her life first after the birth of her third child last month.
But even for her, putting into action what she knows she ought to do continues to be a struggle, she said.
"I promised myself with this new baby I would put the most important things first," she said in a phone interview, as her new child gurgled in the background.
"But then, for example, you emailed me about my new paper, and now here I am doing this phone interview with the baby in my arm."
The key to combating our innate bias toward urgent things, she said, is to think about outcomes before rushing into a decision.
"Take a moment and ask yourself, 'Is this phone call really important?' Well, if it helps other people in their life, then yes."
Other tricks she and other researchers recommend is to make a deliberate choice in the present to prevent your future self from unconsciously choosing the urgent but not important. For example, block off times to work on important things. Set time or duration limits on email and smartphone use.
It also helps to engage regularly in long-term, big-picture thinking, said Monga, whose research focuses on how people choose vice- and virtue-affiliated behaviors.
"We encounter this all the time in self-control research, like eating a burger now versus exercising over time," he said. "Anything that gets your mind into long-term thinking often helps give you power to make better decisions in the present."
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This article was originally published by The Washington Post.