Have you ever been on the fence about purchasing something or even had no interest in it, and the next thing you know, you own it? Or you have a coupon for something that’s about to expire, and even though you don’t need anything, you still feel the need to use it?
Has this ever happened to you – you’ve got everything scheduled for your day, you’re prepared to get a lot done, and one simple email from a client derails your whole plan? Or maybe you’ve just been utterly confused about what to do next on your to-do list because everything seems urgent.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, a sense of urgency is just hard-wired in us. As humans, our brain is programmed to act on a sense of urgency, making it super uncomfortable to fight an urge to buy that infomercial product or eat those cookies that are sitting in the cabinet.
One of the things that marketers skilfully use that they don’t want you to catch on to is their awareness of the effect that urgency has on you. In essence, marketer’s use of “For a limited time only” or “This offer will expire in 24 hours” works so well because of the fact that our human brain automatically reacts to urgency without thinking about it.
How many times have you been on the fence about buying something, but then you noticed a limit on the availability or the time to purchase it, and you just went for it? I know I’m often a sucker for offers that I’m not sure about but that have a time limit on my decision to purchase or not.
The interesting thing when it comes to urgency is that it doesn’t just influence the things you purchase; it also influences your time management as well. This is what’s referred to as the Mere Urgency Effect that I mentioned in last week’s episode #203, “How To Handle Meeting Overload.”
The Mere Urgency Effect is our habit of mistaking the urgent for the important. While we all know that we should focus on important tasks, what researchers discovered is that when presented with a choice between a low-value task which will expire in the short term and a high-value task with a longer time frame, we consistently choose urgent tasks despite them being low-value.
In essence, we will choose what our brain considers urgent even though it’s low-value and complete important tasks later. All because of the Mere Urgency Effect.
This is important to understand, especially for accountants and time management. Unless you get a better understanding of how the urgency effect influences how you manage your time, you’ll always struggle with better time management.
This week I’m going to discuss the Mere Urgency Effect, how it influences your time management, and what to do about it.
The Mere Urgency Effect and how it influences your time management
As with anything having to do with the human brain and human tendencies, the urgency effect has been an interesting subject for researchers to understand. In one experiment, they offered students two different tasks of equal difficulty but with different time frames and rewards.
This was carefully set up to see if they would favor urgent tasks with short completion windows instead of tasks with larger outcomes which are further away. They were asked to create reviews for five different products and were given one minute for each one.
However, they were then split into two groups which were offered a choice of different rewards and time frames to choose between. The result – when urgency was present for one group, they chose the lesser reward, which shows that the introduction of an expiration, or urgency, influenced the student’s decision-making ability.
The reason the urgency effect works is because humans tend to focus on time rather than payoff. As I’ve shared before on the podcast, your lower brain is motivated by immediate gratification, not long-term gain; therefore, when you haven’t managed your brain, you are much more likely to have issues with managing your time.
The issue is that when payoffs are far in the future and uncertain, especially when it comes to a lot of the work we do as accountants, our brain tends to either focus on urgency at the expense of importance or becomes completely overwhelmed in the process. It’s why accountants have such a hard time trying to get more done in less time – the urgency effect is often at play.
This cognitive bias also explains why, despite our best intentions, we get sucked into things like email and Slack messages at the expense of more impactful work. Responding to messages feels urgent, and if you think about it, there’s always someone waiting for a reply.
On the other hand, our most important goals are often far off. There are typically no immediate consequences to putting them off until tomorrow.
Another interesting thing research has shown is that people who perceive themselves as being generally busy are even more likely to fall victim to the Mere Urgency Effect. The reason this is crucial for time management is because this means that those who feel like they have the least amount of time are the least likely to use it well.
It’s also important to understand the urgency effect if you consider yourself a procrastinator. In a way, your brain is working against you if the thing you’re procrastinating offers a long-term reward versus immediate gratification.
It’s also essential to understand that we are more likely to perform smaller-but-urgent tasks that have a deadline than we are to perform more important tasks without one. In the deadline-driven world of accounting, it’s no wonder we have a tendency to make everything urgent, having difficulty delineating between urgent versus important.
As accountants, it’s understandable that there are times we need to feel urgent due to a deadline, but unfortunately, we’ve trained our brains to see everything as urgent, making it harder to shut off the urgency switch. But let’s be honest – we feel this sense of urgency even when time is NOT the issue.
We create this feeling of urgency and say it’s because we don’t have time or that we’re behind, but it really has nothing to do with time. Of course, there are times when a deadline is approaching, and there’s a time crunch, but even when the deadline is over, we still tend to race around, especially mentally.
So what can you do if your brain is naturally wired this way? Let me tell you.
What to do about the urgency effect
You may have come across some of Steven Covey’s work on the Time Management Matrix in the course of your career. He offers a 2 x 2 grid that has Urgent and Non-Urgent on the top of the two columns and Important and Not Important on the side of the two columns, forming 4 boxes.
The goal is to delineate important versus urgent tasks by being able to put tasks in their appropriate box in the grid, or what he describes as “living in box 2”, focusing on things that are Important and Non-Urgent. He explains that it allows for more goal-oriented activities and increased productivity.
While I love a visual that helps to make sense of and apply, a concept, I’m going to help you deal with the urgency effect in a different way. I’m going to help you deal with it cognitively, helping you to understand and override that urgency programming in your brain.
The first thing you need to know is that urgency is a feeling. Why is this so important to point out? Because a feeling is only ever caused by a thought, and if you’ve learned anything from this podcast, it’s that our thoughts are 100% within our control.
The truth is that a thought will always precede a feeling, making it possible to get control over the urgency effect and, therefore, better manage your time. The issue is that most of us have never been taught how to pay attention to what we’re thinking and how to choose our thoughts on purpose.
The Mere Urgency Effect is triggered by thoughts like:
- I have so much to do
- There’s not enough time to get this all done
- Getting out of the house on time is chaos
- I can’t be late
- I’m never going to finish on time
With thoughts like these, it’s understandable that you would feel a sense of urgency, race around, not be efficient, probably forget things, and complain about a lack of time. Unfortunately, the result would be that you still have a lot to do because you’re not being efficient, calm, and collected.
Frankly, feeling a sense of urgency is just uncomfortable. It can often seem like you’re running in place, exhausted in the process, but never seem to get anywhere.
The truth is that we make it so much more difficult for ourselves and our ability to manage our time by having the feeling of urgency, especially as a working mom, because when we think something like, “We’ve got to get going. We can’t be late”, we start barking at everyone, nagging, and repeating ourselves. Meanwhile, in a scenario like this, we’re watching what others are doing, forgetting or not doing what we need to do.
Because of our brain’s knee-jerk, urgent reaction to things, we forget that we can create the calm and certainty we desire. The only issue is that we’ve trained our brain to give into urgency, getting stuck in the rinse and repeat, spin cycle of urgency, and mismanaged time.
Think about it this way – even Emergency Room doctors are able to train their brains to be calm in emergency situations by having a plan and a protocol for what needs to be done so they can calmly execute the plan. This is referred to as Triage, where they’ve trained themselves to be calm by overriding the Mere Urgency Effect.
So what if we could do this on purpose, at work or at home? What would be different? How much time would you save? How much more would you get done if you were calm and focused? How would you show up differently? How much better would you feel if you were clear on what needed to get done and how to prioritize things?
The secret to overcoming the Mere Urgency Effect is to plan with your higher, executive functioning part of your brain. This is the part of the brain that is rational, less urgent, can make decisions for the long-term, and doesn’t overreact to the things that have to get done.
When I work with my coaching clients on The Balanced Accountant Program, there are two pieces they learn in regards to time management – they first need to learn how to manage their brain, and then they need a better time management system for accountants. Part of that time management system is all about learning how to properly plan ahead of time in order to override the urgency effect.
Without the ability to manage your brain and understand how to override the feeling of urgency with feelings like calm and focused, it will always default to a sense of urgency. Thankfully, you have much more control than you might realize.
I follow the system I teach every week and am able to save myself so much time because I’m not allowing the urgency effect to derail my time management. By understanding how to systematically plan your time and manage your brain before, during, and after doing anything, you will be amazed at how much better you feel, how much time you save, how easy it is to get things done, and how much less stress you feel.
I suggest you begin by first becoming aware of what you’re thinking when you feel a sense of urgency. Once you know the thoughts, choose less urgent thoughts on purpose, such as:
- Everything will get done.
- It’s possible that there’s enough time to get this all done.
- We will get there on time.
- I’ve got this.
- I’ll finish on time.
Start to train your brain with these more helpful thoughts that will produce better feelings like calm and in control. From these feelings, then plan what needs to get done, how long you’re going to give yourself to get the result you want and follow the plan.
I also suggest putting a Post-It Note near your computer screen with 3 of your most helpful feelings when you want to get things done, reminding you that when you’re feeling urgent, here are the feelings you’d like to feel on purpose. Keep reminding your brain that this is what you’re choosing to feel and that urgency is just a bad habit you’re willing to break.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the Mere Urgency Effect and how it influences many things, but especially your time management. Just know that you don’t need to wait to get over urgency – you have control over it.
- The Mere Urgency Effect is our habit of mistaking the urgent for the important.
- While we all know that we should focus on important tasks, what researchers discovered is that when presented with a choice between a low-value task which will expire in the short term and a high-value task with a longer time frame, we consistently choose urgent tasks despite them being low-value.
- In the deadline-driven world of accounting, it’s no wonder we have a tendency to make everything urgent, having difficulty delineating between urgent versus important.