If you're like most people, you like to start your day with quick wins. Dashing off replies to emails that arrived overnight. Checking off the easiest items on your to-do list. Doing a few things now even though they aren't due until next week.
After all: Starting your day by knocking off a few easy tasks kick-starts your productivity and builds momentum for the rest of the day.
According to a 2021 study published in Psychology, starting your day with easy tasks that have long deadlines makes it more likely that you'll keep putting off more difficult tasks, even if those difficult tasks are a lot more important.
In short, the only momentum you build involves further procrastination: Doing easy tasks with long deadlines makes it even less likely you'll buckle down and do the hard stuff -- no matter how important it is.
Think of it as an offshoot of the mere urgency effect, the tendency to perform unimportant tasks with objectively lower payoffs instead of important tasks with objectively better payoffs when the unimportant tasks have spurious urgency or carry an illusion of expiration. It feels good to knock things out, and the quickest path to experiencing those good feelings is knocking easy stuff out.
As the researchers write:
People that started a series of tasks with an easy task had significantly higher procrastination scores than those that started with a difficult task, indicating that people who started a series of tasks with an easy task procrastinated more than people who started with a difficult task.
However, there were no significant group differences in procrastination between people who started a series of tasks with an easy or a difficult task when given a short deadline. [my italics]
The last sentence is key. Starting with easy tasks with short deadlines is motivating and can build momentum. Starting your day by whipping off a proposal due by 10 a.m. not only feels good, it feels genuinely important.
As the researchers write:
Starting a series of tasks with a difficult task is related to having more self-control, whereas starting with an easy task is related to a reduced self-control only when given a long deadline.
Start your day with a few things due next week, and you're much more likely to keep doing easy things that really should wait.
Start your day with important things, or start your day a few easy things with short deadlines, and you're much more likely to keep focusing on the tasks that matter most to your long-term success.
So use that to structure your morning. Whenever possible, start with an important task, one that will make a meaningful difference in your professional or personal life. Doing that automatically eliminates any temptation to procrastinate.
Like Elon Musk, who spends the first hour of the day responding to critical issues, focusing on "signal over noise" and refusing to "waste time on stuff that doesn't actually make things better."
Or like Mark Cuban, who starts his day by getting hard stuff out of the way. "The first thing I do when I'm lying in bed," Cuban says, "is grab a phone and start going through my email. Whatever the stressful things are, I try to get those out of the way in the morning."
On the other hand, if you really like quick wins, start your day with a few easy tasks with short deadlines -- think hours, not days. Doing that makes it much less likely you'll procrastinate on the important tasks you need to accomplish once you're done with the easy (yet truly urgent) stuff.
Because what you do matters.
And so does when you do it.