Few things in life are more satisfying than crossing jobs off your list. Whether it’s cataloging personal errands or visualizing work tasks, tons of us are unwittingly obsessed with to-do lists. But while it seems constructive, our attraction to crossing off tasks can actually harm our productivity. It makes us feel like we’ve achieved a lot, while actually producing very little substantive work by the end of the day.
We call it small task addiction. Here’s how your most positive work habit might actually be your most destructive.
The psychology of small task addiction
At work, we tend to classify outstanding tasks into two groups: small, actionable tasks with short-term goals; and bigger, intangible ones that require more time and energy, and relate to long-term goals. Many of us have a tendency to complete the smaller jobs first, despite their relative importance in producing “important work”.
From a scientific point of view, we’re actually programmed to want to tackle the smaller tasks right away. Motivation is a key component of success, and without it it’s almost impossible to accomplish our goals. When we do achieve success – no matter how small it is – our brains release dopamine, which is linked with feelings of both gratification and inspiration.
These emotions make us keen to duplicate whatever we did that caused this success; this is called ‘self-directed learning’, and it helps us stay motivated and positive – things we need to feel in order to tackle those bigger projects. So in a sense, the more things we check off our to-do list, the more motivated we are, and the more likely we’ll be to continue being productive and successful. Great!
But we’re also lazy and easily drawn to the simplest solution. Finishing off the small jobs, like replying to emails or tidying our desks, means we can check off an item on our list without really expending much time or effort. If you told yourself you need to complete one task today, and one is simply returning a call, and the other is tackling a problematic issue that requires deep thought, the easier is obviously the former.
We also tend to focus on minor, mundane jobs to free up the reserves we need to undertake more difficult tasks. Research suggests that we’re much more likely to remember the jobs we haven’t finished compared to the ones we have. When our focus is fixed on other unresolved tasks, we don’t concentrate fully on the task at hand, limiting the quality and value of our work.
Identify what is important and what is urgent
Despite our cognitive preferences for tackling small tasks, it’s actually a pretty destructive habit. We end up prioritizing trivial tasks at the expense of bigger ones that actually positively impact our lives; those that move our career forward, those that give our professional lives meaning and purpose. We focus on task length rather than magnitude, and select what’s pressing over what really counts.
But like any dependency, small task addiction can be managed. Start by identifying which of your jobs are important and which are urgent. This workload management technique has been dubbed the "Eisenhower Principle" after the former U.S. President, who famously said “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
It’s a super effective way of prioritizing based on actual value, rather than situational limitations. Once we identify which jobs are actually important, we can structure a more meaningful and productive everyday. We need to recognize that while small, urgent tasks give us short-term gratification, they usually don’t help us accomplish our goals.
This doesn’t mean you have to get all your big projects out the way before tackling smaller ones; you just need balance and clear view of your priorities. A healthy work structure should consist of small, doable tasks and larger, more complex ones.
Food for thought
While small tasks still have their place, we need to make sure we don’t choose easy reward over actual achievement. Try starting the day with one of your most important tasks, and save smaller ones for productive lulls after lunch and towards the end of the day. You can also treat them as productive dopamine hits, to be used when your energy for a bigger task is fading.