Is ‘The Urgency Effect’ Holding You Back?

You probably choose to complete small, urgent tasks over important but less urgent tasks. Here's why.

Have you ever had an important project begging for attention, but instead you chose to catch up on emails? You’re not alone. According to a New York Times story by Tim Hererra, a recent study found that subjects were more likely to perform urgent, smaller tasks with a deadline instead of “more important tasks without an immediate time constraint, even if the option to perform the urgent task is objectively worse than performing the larger one.”

It’s called the “urgency effect.” Even if our brains recognize that larger, less-urgent tasks are more consequential, we often choose the small, urgent task. Why? Because truly important tasks often are more difficult and offer delayed gratification, while small tasks provide a quicker payoff.

Hererra suggested President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s  “Eisenhower Box,” aka the”Eisenhower’s Matrix” — a square divided into four sections, as a tool that can help users visualize priorities. The four sections within the square were labeled “Urgent/Important”; “Urgent/Not  Important”; “Not Urgent/Important”; and “Not Urgent/Not Important.” Every task on our to-do lists can be sorted into one of those four categories. And because we like instant gratification, we tend to tackle “Urgent/Not Important” or, even worse, “Not Urgent/Not Important” tasks before we do anything else.

Setting up your own “Eisenhower Box” is a good way to determine how effectively you’re spending your time. If you notice that you tend to put off more important tasks in favor of the low-hanging fruit, try this, according to Herrera: “Embrace the magic of micro-progress and slice [big projects] up into tiny goals to make them more manageable.”

Casey Gale

Casey Gale is associate editor of Convene.