Tell me if you can relate: you're staring down the barrel of an impending deadline and you realize you forgot to respond to a semi-urgent email that needs to be handled before the end of the day. You take care of the email but, before you get back to that big project, you decide to refresh your coffee cup because there's no way you're going to get through the next 10 minutes without caffeine. Before you know it, 30 minutes have vanished and you still face that looming deadline.
Don't worry, you're not a laggard or a lazy bum. If you've ever struggled to get important things done first, blame your brain. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that our brains are predisposed to prioritize short-term satisfaction over long-term gain using a subtle sleight of hand that tricks us into tackling minor-yet-urgent tasks over larger, more flexible ones. As a result, we'll knock out relatively unimportant tasks first if it means an immediate pay-off. It's a phenomenon called the "urgency effect," and it can sabotage even the most disciplined of people.
Luckily, there are ways around this. We can train our brains to tackle consequential tasks that lead to greater rewards first, rather than less important ones that derail us from our long-term goals. Here's how:
1. Write it out.
First things first: you can't prioritize tasks that are floating around in the dark recesses of your brain. It's an exercise in futility. That's why so many people swear by lists. Making a list gets tasks out of your head and into the light where you -- and your teammates -- can see them.
Writing down the tasks that needs to be done for the day, the week, the year -- and placing them somewhere prominent -- is the first step to getting those things off your "to-do" list and onto your "done" list. When you can see what needs to get done, you can begin to prioritize.
2. Decide what's urgent and what's important.
Not all tasks are created equal. That's why it's important to group your tasks in terms of urgency and importance.
Tim Herrera, editor of The New York Times's "Smarter Living" section, recommends using the "Eisenhower Method," a process made popular by former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to distinguish urgent and important tasks from non-urgent and non-important tasks. Also known as the Eisenhower Matrix, the process involves separating tasks into one of four quadrants:
Urgent and important.
Urgent but not important.
Important but not urgent.
Neither urgent nor important.
By separating tasks into one of these four quadrants, you can clearly determine the timeliness, relevance, urgency, and importance of a task. The urgent and important tasks get scheduled and dealt with immediately, and the unimportant, non-urgent ones are removed from your list.
Now, what about those times when it's not so clear whether a task is important or not? Well, that's when you need to be honest with yourself about what you really want. Ask yourself: Will this task help me achieve my dream or get me closer to my goals, or will it sidetrack me? Only you can answer that.
3. Embrace "microprogress."
Of course, systems are only as good as the user's ability to follow through. You can create a sophisticated system that looks great on paper but never follow through because the system fails to give your brain the instant gratification it craves. Remember: Our brains are designed to seek out immediate rewards.
So what to do when you have a long-term project with lots of moving parts and many milestones in between? When your brain is working against you, how do you take consistent action on important projects with far-off deadlines? The answer is to embrace "microprogress." By breaking down tasks into tiny, manageable steps, you can make consistent, incremental progress toward your goals; this gives your brain the satisfaction of knowing you've "closed the loop" on a pending item. Progress, however small, creates momentum by activating your brain's feel-good center and providing you with the motivation to keep going.
Just because your brain tries to trick you into doing the easy stuff first, doesn't mean you have to let it. By baking workarounds into your routine, you'll be sure to stay on task.
When it comes to tackling long-term projects and goals, how do you keep from getting sidetracked? Let me know in the comments. I'd love to hear what works for you.