‘When urgency rears its head, we become even less rational than Dwight Eisenhower knew.’ Dwight Eisenhower came up with a classic time management technique, later named the Eisenhower Matrix.
If you’ve read one chapter of one productivity book, you’ve encountered it.
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.
We’re drawn to urgent tasks because they tend to be easier or more straightforward, and because the payoffs are immediate: keeping your boss happy or paying next month’s rent, say, as opposed to realizing your grandest ambitions or fostering long-term social change.
Plus, it’s just nice to get them off your plate, so you’re free of that nagging sense of tasks undone – even though the end result, if you keep acting that way, is a life filled up with trivialities.
A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research confirms: when urgency rears its head, we become even less rational.Researchers created situations in which they eliminated all those justifications for choosing the urgent over the important – level of difficulty, immediacy of payoff, etc.– 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 favor.
Yet merely knowing about our tendency to prioritize 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 is to practice 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 to act on it, of course, but you’ll be doing so more rationally.) Besides, even when there’s a legitimate reason for acting on urgency, you’re probably overestimating its significance.
As the author Tim Ferriss has written, it’s worth learning to “let small bad things happen”, so that big good things eventually come to pass. There are many situations in which you need to act fast if you want to avoid a negative outcome. But if that negative outcome doesn’t matter much, avoiding it might not be the best use of your time.