“It’s important to know your priorities. That may sound obvious but it’s amazing how many people don’t identify their top three to five priorities — or fail to change how they structure their workdays when priorities change. Making priorities explicit will help you devote sufficient time to them.”
President Eisenhower was not alone: In their work lives people routinely feel pulled between tasks that demand immediate attention and tasks that are important, the ones that bring them closer to achieving their long-term goals. Unfortunately, our and others’ research shows that people have a natural tendency to overly focus on the former (such as responding to mundane emails) at the expense of the latter.
One of the main reasons this happens is that human brains are wired to seek completion and the pleasure it brings — a tendency we term “completion bias.” Completing simple tasks, such as answering emails or posting updates on your Twitter account, takes little time and allows you to check off items on your to-do list. Our ongoing research (not yet published) has found that checking off items is psychologically rewarding: After you complete a task, being able to literally check a box makes you happier than when you are not given a box to check.
Complicating matters, 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.
In our research we asked a group of over 500 employees from a wide range of industries to spend the first few minutes of their workday writing down the tasks they wanted to accomplish throughout the day and to complete them in the order they wrote them down. Two-thirds of the employees were also asked to check off their tasks as they completed them, and half of that group was instructed to write down a couple of quick, mundane tasks at the top of their lists (e.g., responding to an urgent email). All employees kept track of their work for two weeks.
The results? Those who completed a couple of short tasks first and then checked off others as they completed them were the most satisfied with their job, felt the highest level of motivation, and, based on their records, had accomplished the most throughout the week. Completing the first few tasks quickly, it seems, gave them the boost they needed to get through the rest of their work.
In addition, completing small tasks frees up the cognitive resources people need to tackle other activities. In fact, research has shown not completing tasks occupies your mind: You seem unable to forget tasks you’ve started but haven’t completed, so you have a hard time devoting your full attention to other activities.
In a laboratory study that psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik conducted in 1927, adult participants performed various simple tasks such as stringing beads and solving puzzles. Sometimes the participants were interrupted and weren’t able to finish the task; other times they were allowed to complete the task. Afterwards, Zeigarnik asked the participants which activities they remembered. The participants were twice as likely to remember the tasks they had not completed.
In 2011, psychologists E. J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister found that people performed worse on a brainstorming task when they were unable to finish a warm-up activity consisting of both physical and mental work. Because they hadn’t crossed the warm-up task off their mental to-do list, it interfered with the subsequent work.
The danger, of course, is devoting too much time to the mundane and too little to important projects.
In unpublished research with Emory University’s Diwas KC and Northwestern University’s Maryam Kouchaki, we examined the completion bias of physicians in the emergency department (ED) of a busy hospital, where patients arrive unscheduled. Using data from about 43,000 distinct patient encounters, we found that physicians exhibit a bias toward completing easy tasks when confronted with an increased workload due to an increase in the number of arriving patients.
Easy tasks in the ED correspond with the treatment of “lower-acuity” patients — in other words, those that are less sick. This strategy initially appears beneficial: By focusing on them, a doctor improves her productivity because these patients have shorter lengths of stay. However, there are at least two problems with the approach. First, patients with more severe issues wait longer, which obviously is not a good thing. Second, with each additional easy patient that a doctor treats, she slows down, so there is a risk of the doctor becoming tired and less effective on the job prior to dealing with patients with more severe conditions.
How can you ensure that you are not succumbing to the completion bias, striking a balance between easier short-term efforts and tougher long-term goals? One way is to audit how you structure your workday and, if necessary, change how you plan your daily tasks.
It’s important to know your priorities. That may sound obvious but it’s amazing how many people don’t identify their top three to five priorities — or fail to change how they structure their workdays when priorities change. Making priorities explicit will help you devote sufficient time to them. Here’s an example of how a GE leadership team did that.
As the study with the group of over 500 employees suggests, another tactic is exploiting the completion bias by tackling a couple of mundane tasks at the start of the workday so you can prepare your mind to tackle the more important activities right after.
By being more thoughtful about your work routine, you can ensure the completion bias leads you to be more, rather than less, productive and effective.