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Techly Explains

Techly Explains: Why do I waste time doing easy tasks instead of ones that matter?

Ever notice how much easier it is to perform a small, menial task than get stuck into a far bigger but ultimately more important job?

Why is our brain – which is supposed to be the most logical of our organs – so hard-wired against doing the things that actually matter?

Unfortunately, it’s been shown that our brain responds to deadlines rather than importance, so we prioritise that little, relatively meaningless job that needs to be done soon over one that really matters, but is due to be completed further down the line.

In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in February, Meng Zhu, Yang Yang and Christopher K Hsee discussed the phenomenon.

“Normatively speaking, 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,” reads the abstract for ‘The Mere Urgency Effect’.

Making things even worse, over the course of five experiments, the study found humans will actually choose “objectively worse options” in the pursuit of these less-important tasks.

“The mere urgency effect documented in this research violates the basic normative principle of dominance — choosing objectively worse options over objectively better options,” the abstract reads.

“People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.”

So how do we get around this frustrating human inclination?

Tim Herrera, editor of the Smarter Living section of the The New York Times, suggests using an old productivity hack created by Dwight Eisenhower.

Given Eisenhower had time in his life to oversee the D-Day landings, be NATO’s first Supreme Commander and become President of the United States, he probably had a pretty good grasp of how best to set priorities.

‘Ike’, as he was known, created the Eisenhower Matrix – also referred to as the Urgent-Important Matrix – wherein you set your priorities based on whether they are ‘Important’ or ‘Less Important’, along with whether they are ‘Urgent’ or ‘Less Urgent’.

By sectioning off your daily tasks into these four simple boxes, you’ll easily recognise what really matters in your day-to-day life.

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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