To "establish focus and accountability," our manager decided to send a daily group email with assignments and timelines for every supervisor. Investigate a quality problem. Evaluate a materials shortage. Revise a safety form. Small tasks with short deadlines, some as immediate as an hour or two.

We became task-completing machines.

But all those deadlines -- all that "urgency" -- was a trap. Faced with the choice of figuring out how to overcome a long-term production bottleneck or creating a new tool sign-out sheet with an imminent deadline, we created the form. 

One was important: Improving overall productivity by just 1 percent could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. The other might have saved a few thousand dollars but it was simple. It had a short completion window.

And it was "urgent."

So that's what we worked on.

Turns out that's not uncommon. Research published in Journal of Consumer Research found that people tend to choose urgent tasks with short completion windows over important tasks with larger outcomes -- or, at the very least, to finish "urgent" tasks first and then move on to more important ones. 

Researchers call the phenomenon the "mere urgency effect": Performing unimportant tasks with objectively lower payoffs, instead of important tasks with objectively better payoffs, when the unimportant tasks have "spurious urgency" or an "illusion of expiration."  As the researchers write: "People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence."

And then there's this: The busier you are and the more stressed you feel, the more likely you are to fall prey to mere urgency effect.

"Especially," as the researchers write, "for those individuals who pay attention to time, and are schedule driven." (In other words, pretty much all of us.)

Keep in mind, putting off something important in order to finish something "urgent" isn't necessarily a conscious decision. Doing so is a basic psychological preference.

Task urgency -- think imminent deadlines or short windows for completion -- creates natural discomfort. Completing the task and hitting the deadline eliminates that discomfort -- even if the task was relatively meaningless, and the deadline self-imposed.

That's why checking tasks off to-do lists can be so fun. But that's also why to-do lists can distract you from what you really need to work on.

How to Focus on Importance, Not Urgency

How can you stop mistaking urgency for importance?

1. Whenever possible, leave time out of your decision-making process. As one experiment showed, participants who were reminded of task payoffs at the moment of task choice were significantly more likely to work on high-value tasks. What matters is the long-term value of what you accomplish -- not the speed or urgency with which it is accomplished.

2. Set yourself up for success. The first thing you do in the morning is the most important thing you will do that day, because it sets the tone for the rest of the day. So prepare the night before. Make a list. Make a few notes. Review information.

Prime yourself to hit the ground running on a task that truly matters. 

Do that, and you're a lot less likely to get distracted by something that is urgent but not important. And the momentum you build will make you more likely to move on to another important task.

3. Create windows for accomplishing less-important tasks. I like to knock out "urgent" tasks while I eat. Or near the end of the day. Whatever you choose, block out a window where you'll focus on tasks with short completion windows.

That way you'll get those things done and you'll feel less psychological preference to immediately relieve the discomfort a deadline naturally creates.

4. When in doubt, ask yourself one question. As I wrote about recently, the "one-question rule" is a simple way to stay focused on what matters.

For Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, that one question was "Will this help Southwest be the lowest-cost provider?" For Gerri on Succession, that one question is, "How does this advance my personal position?"

For you, that one question might be, "Will this help me launch my startup by the end of next month?" Or "Will this help me roll out a new product line before the end of the first quarter?"

Consider your long-term goal -- consider what will make the biggest difference in your success, whether professional or personal -- and ask yourself whether something "urgent" is truly important.

Chances are, it's not.

Which means it should wait.