Why the unimportant, urgent stuff gets done first

Posted on Posted in Analytics Strategy, Data Driven Culture, Marketing Science, Technology

Why does it seem like all the unimportant, easy stuff gets done first?

Look up The Urgency Bias.

Employing simplified games and real-life consequential choices, we provide evidence for “urgency bias”, showing that people prefer working on urgent (vs. important) tasks that have shorter (vs. longer) completion window however involving smaller (vs. bigger) outcomes, even when task difficulty, goal gradient, outcome scarcity and task interdependence are held constant.- Zhu, Yeng, Hsee (2014)

Even when task difficulty, goal gradient, outcome scarcity AND task interdependence is held constant, urgency wins.

Even when it would be more beneficial to do something important instead of something urgent, even when you’re painfully made aware of those incentives, you still gravitate towards doing the urgent.

There’s probably something in your brain that causes it, maybe something down there in the lizard part.

There’s that old adage that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush that never seems to get much push back Indeed, founders are taught that the key to a reality distortion field is to create a sense of urgency.

After all, it’s probably way more urgent to squash 200 bugs than it is to sit down and rework how that subsystem functions. The present is almost far more urgent than the future, nearly by definition.

Important things that are not urgent ought take precedent over unimportant things that are urgent.


What’s important? What’s urgent? Reasonable people may all look at the same objective facts and disagree.

It’s rare that there’s alignment in judgement among any group of people.

Leadership teams are supposed to spend large volumes of time planning, ‘preparing their mind’, so that they align on judgement. An investment in alignment up front generates huge time savings and optimizations later on.

Variation in judgement, variation in how people think about the future, impacts the degree to which something is urgent.

It comes down to your own judgement and how you apply it.

How to avoid the urgency bias from happening to you

This is a bug of your brain. Not a feature.

You can try solve it by applying judgement.

First off, do you have a list of what is important? Almost everybody has a line of accountability. You’ve promised something your customers. You’ve promised something to the investors. You’ve promised something to the board. You’ve promised something to the CEO. You’ve promised something to the VP. You’ve promised something to your manager. You’ve promised something to your self. We’re all on the hook for something. It usually resides in a list, somewhere visible, and you remind yourself that those are important things.

Secondly, urgent tasks tend to be unexpected and not sorted in the present important list. Does the urgency attached to a new piece of information generate an emotional response that is designed, intended, to overwhelm your analytical mind? Has somebody designed an experience to cause you to feel urgency? Is it objectively urgent and important? If you’re noticing yourself experiencing an emotion, check it.

Third, are you, yourself, making the choice to prioritize unimportant, urgent, tasks over the important things? Are you keeping track of that? Are you aware if it’s happening to you? If you’re not aware of it, do you have any chance of managing it?

Fourth, help your team think by planning in advance and doing the work to prepare your mind. It pays dividends.


The urgency bias is hardwired into your brain. It produces sub-optimal performance. If you’re aware of it, you can manage it.

For optimal results, you should manage it.