Time Management: The Urgency Effect & 3 Ways To Beat It

by Ben Richardson
23rd November 2020    

This is going to be the first of a series of four blogs which will look at some of the reasons that we often struggle to manage our time well.

This series will cover:

  1. The Urgency Effect
  2. Complexity Bias
  3. The Zeigarnik Effect (I’ve Started So I’ll Finish)
  4. Planning Fallacy (It’ll Be Different This Time!)

These are 4 of the biggest traps that people fall into so in each of these articles we’ll take a look at the issue and then a few tried and tested tools to help you stay in control.


What Is The Urgency Effect?

Put simply the Urgency Effect is our habit of mistaking the urgent for the important.

We all know that we should focus on important tasks with larger payoffs. However, when presented with a choice between:

  1. low-value tasks which will expire in the short-term, and
  2. high-value tasks with longer time scales

we consistently choose urgent tasks first despite them being low-value and complete important tasks later.


What Is The Evidence For The Urgency Effect?

The Urgency Effect has been studied in a number of studies. See this article for a good overview.

One very good experiment involved offering students two different tasks of equal difficulty but with different time frames and rewards. This was carefully set up to see if they would favour urgent tasks with short completion windows instead of tasks with larger outcomes which are further away.

They were asked to create reviews for five different products. They were given one minute for each one.

However, they were then split into two groups which were offered a choice of different rewards and time scales to choose between.

Group 1 was asked to choose between:

  • 6/10ths of a Hershey bar for each completed review however this offer was only available for 10 minutes. OR
  • A whole Hershey bar for each completed review and this offer was available for 24 hours.

Group 2 (the control) was asked to choose between:

  • 6/10ths of a Hershey bar for each completed review and this offer was available for 24 hours. OR
  • A whole Hershey bar for each completed review and this offer was available for 24 hours.

Clearly, in both scenarios option 2 offers a 66.6% higher return for each unit of work (a review) and so should be the preferred option.

In Group 2 they reliably (87%) went for the second option which offers the higher payoff. In group 1 where urgency was introduced into the decision, 69% went for the better option.

So although it seems obvious the introduction of an expiration influenced students’ decisions materially. Something that marketers have known for years!


Why Does The Urgency Effect Work?

The Urgency Effect (sometimes known as The Mere Urgency Effect) works because people tend to focus on time rather than the payoff.

Payoffs are far in the future and uncertain usually, and especially for the most important tasks. Completion dates, however, are straightforward to calculate. Over time our brain tends to focus on deadlines as a shortcut. This is often exacerbated by loss aversion because we will ‘lose’ the lower value opportunity if we don’t take it.

We’re not completely irrational however, further research has shown that if people are explicitly reminded to look at the return on their activity they change their mind to the higher returning activity.

We need to train ourselves to move away from goal completion, often with immediate and certain payoffs, to work on important tasks with larger outcomes.


Does Stress Make The Urgency Effect Worse?

The short answer to this is ‘Yes’.

Further research showed that the tendency to focus on time rather than payoff was more pronounced in people who were stressed and ‘time poor’. Which makes sense if you are pushed for time then that tends to be your focus and so means that you will focus more attention on deadlines and time generally.

The bitter irony is that if you are stretched for time that is exactly the time that you need to ignore unimportant tasks and work on important tasks. But then perhaps it is their habit of leaving tasks that are difficult and further away to focus on tasks with short completion dates that has caused the issue in the first place?


How Do I Beat The Urgency Effect?

There are a number of reliable ways to beat The Urgency Effect.

Let’s look at three of the most popular. Depending on how you look at them, they are all very similar as at heart they are different ways of moving your focus from allocating your time according to a task’s urgency to a task’s value and importance.


The Eisenhower Matrix / One Thing / Essentialism

All of these practices involve working out and focusing on your highest value activities first by ranking tasks for urgency and importance.

They have slightly different ways of looking at things but boil down to this same idea at heart.

For a copy of the Eisenhower matrix and more detail on how to use it see our time management course page – link above.


Tricking Yourself With Deadlines

If deadlines drive your focus then use this to your advantage.

Give important but not urgent tasks short completion windows to force yourself to focus on them.

This isn’t always achievable but in a perfect world the more important the task the nearer the deadline.


Time Blocking

Method One: Allocate set limited amounts of time for low-value tasks. For example, I will only open my email for 40 minutes three times per day – first thing, lunchtime and the end of the day. This frees up the rest of the day.

Method Two: For the first X minutes of the day ( 120 minutes is often chosen) I will work on my most important task first and then work on other things. I won’t open my email or respond to my phone or any other distractions.