Urgency Bias and Completion Bias: Friend or Foe to Your Productivity?

I carefully closed the last drawer in my kitchen, and sighed with satisfaction. While not the most exhilarating task, organizing these drawers felt like the perfect start to my day. Sure, I had bigger fish to fry. I needed to put a contract together for a vendor for my small home-based business. I had taxes due in a couple weeks. And the finishing touches on my Web site needed attention.

So why was I organizing drawers in my kitchen (a task that could go undone for years with no real consequences)?

Because it felt good.

If asked, most of us would say we’re capable of making rational decisions—looking at the facts, weighing pros and cons, and choosing. But when it comes to getting work done, our unconscious human brains may be giving us some nudges … away from the sensible.

Our mind’s tendency to allow unconscious triggers to weigh in can throw off rational, fact-based thinking and behavior. And no one (even the most intelligent) is immune to a multitude of implicit, cognitive biases.

Among them are two that can have a real effect on your productivity: Urgency bias and completion bias.

Urgency bias

Recent research by Meng Zhu, Yang Yang, and Christopher K Hsee identified a tendency for people to perform unimportant tasks over important tasks, when the unimportant tasks are characterized merely by spurious urgency (and illusion of expiration).

Their research shows that people behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.

We see this time and again in the business world and life. Because of the urgency of immediate tasks, we often neglect our long-term goals. We work at dead end jobs because we don’t make time for the daunting task of looking for a new one. We put out little fires all day long rather than spending time to revamp the antiquated system causing the fires.

Is the urgent keeping you from doing what’s important?

Completion bias

Research by Harvard Business Review took a closer look at the pleasure we get from completion and how it affects productivity. Their findings note that checking boxes makes us happier. And if we fill our to-do list with mundane, unimportant tasks, it can be detrimental to productivity.

But their research has a surprising twist. “Finishing immediate, mundane tasks actually improves your ability to tackle tougher, important things. Your brain releases dopamine when you achieve goals. And since dopamine improves attention, memory and motivation, even achieving a small goal can result in a positive feedback loop that makes you more motivated to work harder going forward.”

They also found that completing these small tasks freed up more brain power for other activities. In fact, sometimes, not completing tasks occupies your mind and distracts you from fully focusing on other things.

The trick it seems, is to limit these small menial tasks to just enough to get the dopamine going, but not so many as to keep you from tackling those bigger, more important projects.

Know what’s important

Your productivity rests on your ability to prioritize and curb your unconscious biases when necessary. Here are some suggestions:

  • Stop and consider what your most important tasks are. Make a list of the top four or five and keep it in sight so you can weigh the importance of busywork, “urgent” requests and interruptions.
  • Share or delegate some urgent items. It’s easy to get in the habit of doing things yourself because “it’s faster than explaining to someone else.” Urgent doesn’t necessarily mean complex, so delegating can be easier than you think and colleagues or employees will become better able to help in the future.
  • Break down large tasks that you find yourself avoiding into smaller parts, so you can still experience the feeling of completion
  • Become self-aware of your unconscious biases and how they’re affecting your work. If checking off a few boxes helps get you rolling, go with it. If you’re constantly caught up in seemingly urgent, yet fruitless tasks, stop procrastinating.

Now, I’m off to the next most important thing on my list.

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