Our brains have an urgency bias

Every day at work, we are faced with decisions that make or break how our days will go. Do we pick the administrative task that was due yesterday or the important task that has no clear deadline enforcer? Left to their own devices, our brains pick urgency over importance, wanting the immediate satisfaction of a quick payoff.

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that our brains are biased towards tasks that are seemingly urgent even when they are objectively less important. “People may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs, or people want to finish the urgent tasks first and then work on important tasks later,” the researchers found.

How to overcome the urgency bias to be productive

We are creatures who thrive under tight deadlines. Big-picture projects with no time constraints are harder for us to motivate ourselves to complete. The goal of finishing that email sounds much easier than the nebulous goal of learning a second language. In one experiment, participants picked an urgent, five-minute task to win a $20 Amazon gift card over a less urgent task that they had 50 minutes to complete, even though this task paid five more dollars.

Restrictive deadlines act as exclamation points, asking us to pay more attention to them. “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,” the study found. “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.” The warning: we like the comforting illusion of being busy so much we will choose tasks that matter less to us in the long-run. Too often, overworked employees mistake being busy with actual accomplishment. But studies have proven that working long hours does not lead to better work.

To stop your brain from thwarting your productivity, you need to build reminders of yourself of what you really want out of the day. The researchers suggest shifting our mind away from the “completion windows to the final outcomes of everyday tasks.” Instead of looking for the easy win of a quick task, we can remind ourselves of the bigger tasks’ long-term benefits. Or as management professor Morten Hansen has told Ladders, focus less on the activities themselves, focus more on the value of each one. Do less, then obsess over the choices you pick. That way, we learn to stay focused on the bigger picture of our careers.