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Get off the treadmill – address biases that stop you focussing on the future

Research shows that our attention is drawn to time-sensitive tasks over tasks that are less urgent, but which offer greater rewards. This is known as the mere-urgency effect, where we prioritise tasks with a deadline over tasks without one, regardless of their long-term payoffs.

However, the good news is that if we keep in mind the consequences of our choices and the long-term payoffs, we are more likely to choose the important task over the urgent one.

The Eisenhower matrix, named after the former US president, categorises tasks into four quadrants, based on the combinations of urgency (represented by the clock) and importance (represented by the compass).  This was later popularised by author Stephen Covey.

Unfortunately, many of us tend to spend too much of our time in quadrant one (tasks identified as: urgent and important).  Tasks in this quadrant are an operational necessity and not doing will result in immediate negative consequences.  These tasks are normally deadline-driven, can have a ‘problem-focus’ and may result in panic and aggression – often invoking a “threat response”. The constant adrenaline associated with quadrant one makes it very addictive.

Burn out

Too much time in quadrant one is not only exhausting, but also prevents us from working on quadrant two tasks (important but not urgent). These tasks represent long-term strategic initiatives, planning, learning new skills, developing partnerships, etc. They often invoke a “reward response” The reason we neglect these vital tasks is because there is no immediate negative consequence for not doing them. However, without planting the seeds for the future, there will be nothing to cultivate.  This is a cognitive bias we all have, called “present bias”.

The power of now?                                       

Present bias means we trivialise a large reward in the future compared with a smaller one here and now.  This made sense in our hunter/gatherer days when we might not have even been around to see tomorrow’s sunrise.  However, today it means we focus on instant results at the expense of longer-term initiatives.

This problem is compounded by a part of the brain called the temporoparietal junction that distinguishes ourselves from other people. When thinking of an immediate reward, it is us that receives it.  However, a reward in the future is coded by the brain as someone else (even though it is our future self) – so it is much less appealing.

How much time per week do you spend in each quadrant?

From drama to inertia

The other problem with spending too much time in quadrant one is that out of sheer exhaustion and escapism, instead of tackling quadrant two tasks, we go straight to quadrant four (neither urgent nor important), for example, browsing social media, aimless Google searching, etc.!  This often invokes self-critical feelings like guilt. So, instead of giving us respite from quadrant one, it exacerbates our general negativity and stress levels.

The quadrant 3 trap

Some tasks appear important because they are urgent, but if we stop and think about it, they are actually not important – some meetings fall into this category, as do other people’s priorities that we may inadvertently take on. Quadrant three (not important but urgent) represents a great opportunity.  What tasks are you currently doing that you could stop, delegate to someone else, or re-direct to their “proper owner”?

How can you break out of the exhausting treadmill of quadrant one? 

Scheduling more time in quadrant two, for instance developing systems, building relationships, developing others, delegating and planning should result in fewer crises and less time in quadrant one. Look through your calendar and try to categorise your activities into quadrants 1,2,3 and 4. You can categorise your emails in this way too. How much time per week do you spend in each quadrant?  Is this the right balance for you?  What would your ideal balance be? What systems and habits do you need to develop to keep your focus on quadrant two?

If you need support getting clarity on your priorities, understanding the best way for your leaders to use their time more wisely and working in a more brain-friendly way, contact me about my bespoke leadership programme and one-to-one coaching.

Email Tom
Meng Zhu, Yang Yang, Christopher K Hsee (2018) The Mere Urgency Effect,
Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 45, Issue 3, Pages 673–690


Dwight D. Eisenhower (August 19, 1954). Address at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Evanston, Illinois. (retrieved 31 March 2015.)
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