Prioritizing Tasks

People often have the wrong reasons for doing one task instead of another.

Prioritizing Tasks

WHY DO PEOPLE CHOOSE to complete one task over another? Sometimes they’re swayed by the task’s seeming urgency—for instance, they redeem a coupon with a fast-approaching expiration date, instead of scheduling a medical checkup, even though the medical checkup is more important. Other times, they’re influenced by the fact that one task has a distant deadline, which might lead them to think it’s too difficult to complete, so they choose a simpler chore instead.

The bottom line is that people too often choose the more impractical and ineffective approach when prioritizing tasks, according to two papers co-authored by Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland. Zhu was lead author on both papers.

In a study about “the mere urgency effect,” Zhu and fellow researchers discovered that people often tend to complete an unimportant chore instead of an essential one because they feel they must beat a deadline. Zhu wrote the paper with Yang Yang, an assistant professor of marketing at the Warrington College of Business Administration at the University of Florida in Gainesville; and Christopher K. Hsee, the Yntema Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in Illinois.

The researchers conducted five experiments showing that when people sense that they have limited time to complete a job, they focus on task-completion windows instead of payoffs. Consequently, they pursue the urgent task even when other items on their to-do lists are more important and promise better payoffs. The “mere urgency effect” is more pronounced in people who perceive themselves as generally busy and who are constantly aware of life’s ticking clock. However, when participants are reminded of the payoffs of the various tasks they’re choosing from, the “mere urgency effect” is diminished.

In a second paper, Zhu studied the “mere deadline effect” with co-authors Rajesh Bagchi, the Richard E. Sorensen Junior Faculty Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business in Blacksburg; and Stefan J. Hock, an assistant professor of marketing at George Mason University’s School of Business in Fairfax, Virginia. They conclude that when a task has a distant deadline, people think it will be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming; this might lead them to procrastinate or give up on the task altogether because they believe the cost of completing it will be too high.

But this reasoning is driven by an incorrect inference about time, the researchers say. Many difficult tasks have distant deadlines because they will require so much time and effort to complete; this leads people to assume that all tasks with distant deadlines are difficult, even if those remote deadlines are driven by factors that have nothing to do with difficulty. The researchers conducted experiments showing that the “mere deadline effect” could be mitigated when respondents are presented with tasks that are well-defined, or when respondents have experience with particular jobs and can accurately estimate how much time the jobs will take.

The researchers believe these two studies can help managers and individuals understand how decision-making processes are affected by both short and long deadlines.

Both studies were published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “The Mere Urgency Effect” first appeared online February 9, 2018, and “The Mere Deadline Effect: Why More Time Might Sabotage Goal Pursuit” first appeared online April 5, 2018.