Fo­cus on what’s im­por­tant, not ur­gent

The Guardian Weekly - - Mind & Relationships -

Back in the days when Amer­i­can pres­i­dents didn’t spend lit­er­ally ev­ery wak­ing hour grat­i­fy­ing their ap­petite for cru­elty or cheese­burg­ers, Dwight Eisen­hower came up with a clas­sic time man­age­ment tech­nique, later named the Eisen­hower Ma­trix. His point, in short, was that ev­ery po­ten­tial ac­tiv­ity is ei­ther ur­gent or not, and ei­ther im­por­tant or not. Life’s pri­mary chal­lenge is to make time for the im­por­tant stuff that isn’t ur­gent, even though it doesn’t feel press­ing, while avoid­ing the ur­gent stuff that isn’t im­por­tant, even though it does feel press­ing.

But a re­cent study in the Jour­nal of Con­sumer Re­search con­firms what I’ve long sus­pected: when ur­gency rears its head, we be­come even less ra­tio­nal than Eisen­hower knew. Re­searchers cre­ated sit­u­a­tions in which they eliminated all those jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for choos­ing the ur­gent over the im­por­tant – level of dif­fi­culty, im­me­di­acy of pay­off, etcetera – and found peo­ple still chose the more ur­gent op­tion. In other words, even if some task on your to-do list isn’t eas­ier, and isn’t a bet­ter way to please your boss or keep your­self sol­vent or any­thing else – even if there’s no rea­son to do it other than that some­one’s per­suaded you it’s “ur­gent” – you’ll still be bi­ased in its favour.

When it comes to get­ting our pri­or­i­ties straight, we’re like the tar­get market for those dodgy ads for com­mem­o­ra­tive royal wed­ding plates or bat­tery-pow­ered av­o­cado-slicers, avail­able at a dis­count while stocks last. It’s fake ur­gency, yet it works: act now, or you’ll miss out! Oh, you didn’t need or want it in the first place? Never mind! Act now!

Yet merely know­ing about our ten­dency to pri­ori­tise ur­gency over im­por­tance rarely leads to bet­ter choices. That’s be­cause the know­ing is in­tel­lec­tual, whereas ur­gency is an emo­tional or even bod­ily mat­ter: you act from a twinge of dis­com­fort, a clench in the stom­ach, a rac­ing heart. The best trick I’ve found is to prac­tise con­sciously dis­trust­ing those feel­ings: to learn to treat the sense of ur­gency as a sign some­thing prob­a­bly isn’t the best use of your time. (You might still de­cide de to act on it, of course, but you’ll be do­ing so more ra­tio­nally.) Be­sides, es, even when there’s a le­git­i­mate rea­son for act­ing on ur­gency, you’re prob­a­bly over­es­ti­mat­ing its sig­nif­i­cance. As au­thor Tim Fer­riss has writ­ten, it’s worth learn­ing to “let small bad things hap­pen”, so that big good things s even­tu­ally come to pass. There are many sit­u­a­tions in which you need eed to act fast if you want to avoid a neg­a­tive out­come. But if that neg­a­tive out­come doesn’t mat­ter much, ch, avoid­ing it might not be the best t use of your time.

A let­ter to … my ther­a­pist, whom I fell in love with

Af­ter 12 weeks of coun­selling, I felt strong. You had brought out a side of me I didn’t know I had – and you were about to leave my life per­ma­nently. How could I say good­bye to some­one like that?

Un­able to sleep, I Googled “fall­ing in love with your ther­a­pist”. I dis­cov­ered that it is a com­mon phe­nom­e­non called trans­fer­ence. I was pro­ject­ing my bag­gage on to you. I un­der­stood that what I felt wasn’t real.

I didn’t know you at all, but you knew ev­ery­thing about me, all of my dark­est and most pa­thetic im­pulses, and still you treated me with re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion. I felt a fool.

Telling you I loved you was bru­tal. I hunted des­per­ately for words that would soften the hu­mil­i­a­tion.

You were so kind. You soothed me. You hugged me good­bye, the first and only time we would ever touch, and kissed me on the head. I had no words, bu but it didn’t mat­ter; you kne knew.

It was like a be­reave­ment, los­ing you. Life goes on, with it its tri­als and tribula tribu­la­tions; and when I won­der what you w would say, what emo­tio emo­tion I would read i in those brown eyes, the pain takes my b breath away, even now. It no longe longer mat­ters wheth whether what I felt was real, r or trans­fer­enc fer­ence, or both. I just miss you, and

t that’s all.

Oliver Burke­man

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