If you’re like most people, you like to start your day with quick wins. Quick responses to emails that arrived overnight. Check off the easiest items on your to-do list. Doing a few things now… even if they won’t be ready until next week.
After all, starting your day by doing a few simple tasks will boost your productivity and build momentum for the rest of the day.
According to a 2021 study published in Psychology† if you start your day with easy tasks with long deadlines, you are more likely to keep putting off more difficult taskseven if those difficult tasks are a lot more important.
In short, the only momentum you’ll build is even more procrastination: by completing simple tasks with long deadlines, you’re even less likely to take the plunge and do the difficult—however important—things.
Think of it as an offshoot of the Mere Urgency effect, the tendency to perform unimportant tasks with objectively lower payouts rather than important tasks with objectively better payouts when the unimportant tasks have “spurious urgency” or an “illusion of decay”. It feels good to turn things off, and the fastest way to experience those good feelings is to knock out easy things.
as the researchers write†
People who started a series of tasks with an easy task had significantly higher procrastination scores than those who started with a difficult task, indicating that people who started a series of tasks with an easy task procrastinated more than people who started with a difficult task.
However (emphasis added), there were no significant group differences in procrastination between people who started a series of tasks with an easy or a difficult task when given a short deadline.
The last sentence is the key. Starting with easy tasks with short deadlines is motivating and can build momentum. Starting your day with a proposal that is due by 10am doesn’t just feel good, it feels really important.
There is no “mere” urgency; there is actually urgency.
as the researchers write†
Starting a series of tasks with a difficult task is related to having more self-control while starting with an easy task is related to a decreased self-control only with a long deadline†
Start your day with a few things that need to be done next week, and you’re much more likely to keep doing easy things that actually have to wait.
Start your day with important things, or start your day with some easy things with short deadlines, and you’ll focus much more on the tasks that are most important to your long-term success.
So use that to structure your morning. Whenever possible, start with an important task, one that will make a meaningful difference in your professional or personal life. By doing so, the temptation to avoid procrastination is automatically eliminated.
Like Elon Musk, who spends the first hour of the day responding to critical issuesfocusing on “signal over noise” and refusing to “waste time on things that don’t really make things better”.
Or like Mark Cuban, who starts his day by getting hard things out of the way. “The first thing I do when I’m in bed”, cuban says“is pick up a phone and start checking my email. Whatever the stressful stuff, I try to get it out of the way in the morning.”
On the other hand, if you really like quick wins, start your day with some easy tasks with short — think hours, not days — deadlines. If you do, you’re much less likely to put off the important tasks you need to do once you’re done with the easy (yet really urgent) stuff.
Because what you do matters.
And that includes if you do it.