In 2018, Meng Zhu, Yang Yang and Christopher Hsee designed an experiment to answer a simple question: When people are faced with choices of varying urgency and importance, how do they choose what to prioritize? 7
Similarly to the Eisenhower Matrix, the researchers defined task importance by whether the task involves significant outcomes, and defined task urgency by a short completion window. To conceptualize the difference between the two, they used the example of scheduling a routine checkup at the doctor’s as an important task and a cancer screening after one discovers a mole as an urgent one.
The researchers wanted to see which tasks were prioritized and how the trade-offs were made. They devised a series of different experiments that forced participants to choose between tasks that would expire and give some reward (urgent) and tasks that would not expire and give a larger reward.
In the first experiment, participants were told that they could either complete Task A or Task B: both tasks required them to complete five product reviews in five minutes and both tasks would be the same level of difficulty. In the urgency condition, students were told that Task A would offer them a bonus of 6 points per review and expire in 10 minutes and Task B would offer them 10 points per review and expire in 24 hours. They were told that for every 10 points they earned, they would receive one Hershey’s Kiss. In a control condition, students were told that both Task A and Task B would have different bonus points available but that both expired after 24 hours.
The researchers found that in the control condition, only 13.3% of students chose to work on the more urgent, low-pay off task (earning them 6 points), whereas 31.3% of students in the urgency condition decided to work on the more urgent, low-pay off task. Since both tasks actually took the same amount of time and therefore the chance of completing one review in either was the same, it would have made more sense to pick the task that would offer the greatest reward and did not expire quicker. The researchers speculated that people were being influenced by the mere urgency effect, which describes people’s tendency to be influenced by the expiration of a task over its potential payoff.7
The researchers believed that the mere urgency effect occurred because people get enticed by restricted time frames, and that therefore, it could be diminished by shifting participants’ attention to importance instead of urgency. They devised another experiment to show this. In the new experiment, participants were asked to complete an online study for a fixed payment of 50 cents, with the possibility of either a 12 cent or 16 cent bonus depending on which task they chose. Half the workers were reminded to pay attention to the payoff of each task. The researchers found that when the payoffs were highlighted at the moment of task choice, the mere urgency effect did not come into play and workers were more likely to choose the higher paying task.7 In other words, the participants understood the value of importance over urgency, but prioritized whichever one was pointed out to them.
We can think of the Eisenhower Matrix as a tool that reminds people to pay more attention to the payoff of their task by asking them to decide whether it is just urgent, or also important. It therefore can help mitigate the impacts of the mere urgency effect to ensure that you prioritize what will yield the most fruitful outcomes.