The Washington Post

Deadlines thwart our ability to prioritize important tasks, research finds

- BY WILLIAM WAN william.wan@washpost.com More at washington­post.com/ news/ speaking-of-science

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 bad 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 decisions in life. She found herself delaying 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 could have been caught with earlier diagnoses, she said.

“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.

In surveys, the researcher­s 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. It is why stores offer limited-time sales and why commercial­s 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.”

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.

A decision matrix has been created based on a quote attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” The matrix helps people sort tasks into their most crucial ones (both urgent and important) and ones to avoid (not urgent and not important).

In the past decade, there has been a growing body of scientific research focused on decisionma­king, 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 said she has become especially aware of the need to prioritize after having a baby last month.

“I promised myself with this new baby I would put the most important things first,” she said in a phone interview, as her 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 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.”

Another trick she and other researcher­s recommend is to make a deliberate choice in the present to prevent your future self from choosing the urgent but not important. For example, block off times to work on important things. Set time limits for email.

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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