“Urgency bias” is killing your productivity

What a rush.
What a rush.
Image: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
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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. Quick as it may seem we can knock them off our to-do list, these minor chores sneakily steal our attention. If they feel urgent, we’re especially prone to moving them up in priority. And soon it’s time to start putting Y off, and maybe even X, for another day.

The situation may be even more frustrating than we realized. A recent business school study finds that our built-in “urgency bias” will reliably direct our brains to spend time on a task that merely seems urgent, instead of one that is not pressing, but ought to carry more weight.

Our brains are so drawn to urgency, in other words, that we choose “objectively worse options over objectively better options,” the researchers write.

The study, lead by Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, is ostensibly connected to time management at work and the way consumers make decisions, but it has implications outside the office and beyond commerce.

Several years ago, Zhu learned that several of her friends were diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Shaken, she began thinking about how little attention she paid to her own health and annual check-ups. Screenings are to-do’s we rarely have time for because we’re all so “busy.” But what keeps us so preoccupied that we don’t make time for potentially life-saving doctor visits? Or for the kinds of socializing with close friends and family that, according to one of Harvard’s largest studies, makes a person happier over the course of a lifetime? Zhu wanted to find out.

She and her fellow researchers tested decision-making processes in a series of studies, asking college students and paid online contractors to choose between two assignments that were identical, except one had a short deadline (i.e., 10 minutes) and the other came with a wide window (i.e., 24 hours.) The option with the longer horizon always paid more, in either chocolates or actual cash, depending on the experiment.

Importantly, the shorter deadline was a sham, since the job descriptions made it clear that the task would take only three minutes and you were given 10. The short deadline, therefore, only provided the illusion of urgency.

Nevertheless, more people chose the chore that offered lesser rewards and was attached to a shorter deadline. In one case, participants opted for a perceived “urgent” task that paid $20 in an Amazon gift card over a non-urgent task that paid $25.

Beyond scarcity and easy wins

Zhu’s findings add a new complexity to a couple of existing assumptions.

Previous research says that when we look at our to-do list, we tend to favor easy tasks that can be done quickly, because completing a chore gives us a little boost. A tougher, less time-constrained project—i.e., developing better relationships, or learning to play an instrument—often feels too distant or abstract to offer the kind of quick dopamine hit that comes with knocking an email off your list. With this study, however, the two tasks were equally easy and concrete.

In the paper, Zhu and her co-authors describe commodity theory, which argues that we make inferences about things that are rare, and therefore see them as more desirable. If there are “only four pairs left!” of a pair of shoes we’re eying online, they must be in demand for a good reason—maybe they’re of higher quality, or a better deal.

But in the study, ”we left no room for them to make such an inference,” says Zhu. The short tasks—such as writing out a series of captchas backwards— could only be done once, and they did not unlock any other rewards, like the ability to pick up another paid task. They did not even offer a beat-the-clock head rush.

The only thing that made one chore seem more attractive than another was its time demands. Apparently, that’s all it takes to put our minds into a heightened state of arousal that clouds our judgement.

How can we get around this?

When the New York Times covered Zhu’s work, it pointed to the Eisenhower Box, or Urgent-Important matrix, as a tool for countering urgency bias. With the idea behind it credited to the late US president for which it’s named, the Eisenhower box allows people to assign tasks to one of four quadrants: urgent and important; urgent, but not important; not urgent, but important; and not urgent, not important. Here’s what that looks like:

Productivity hackers (including Quartz At Work’s own Khe Hy) swear by the box, and credit it for helping them make smarter use of their time. But Zhu says the matrix is no match for the urgency bias. The latter is so ingrained we don’t see it happening. 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. It can’t prevent you from seeing signs for close-out sales when you’re on your way home. Before you can remember to write down “respond to text from mom” in your Eisenhower box, you’ve already written back to her.

Besides, says Zhu, we don’t really have to concern ourselves with two of the four quadrants. Who has a problem pushing off chores that are neither important nor urgent? Or jumping on tasks that are both?

But there are hacks that can put the urgency bias to work in your favor. For example, managers can break large projects down into smaller tasks with several urgent deadlines to keep the team motivated, Zhu suggests.

She also found that a well-timed reminder of a non-urgent task’s greater benefits convinced participants in her study to act rationally and choose that option. Translation: Companies and leaders who prefer healthy, engaged employees should consider interventions, like regular alerts, to bring attention to the long-term rewards of taking lunch and coffee breaks, and staying home when you’re sick.

Another way to thwart the bias, says Zhu, is to become less busy—which admittedly sounds like a chicken-and-egg riddle. In the researchers’ experiments, however, they found that people who perceived themselves as “busy” were more likely to select an assignment that felt urgent, just to “get it out of the way.”

What’s the hurry?

Ultimately, the goal should be to question your choices constantly, and to develop the ability to watch your mind as it gets whipped up by sudden requests.

You might take a cue from the New York poet Marie Howe, who beautifully captures our tendency to rush around like we’re putting out fires in a bittersweet poem called “Hurry.” It begins:

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?

We’re all capable of taking a step back to recognize the rushed mindset and its consequences. Start by asking yourself, when a task falls onto your plate, “Is this really dire?” And then think about not only how, but when, to best handle it.