The Immediate over The Important – The Solo’s Quandary

Immediate vs Important2

As you rezoom your legal career you can become bogged down in deciding which things are important or immediate. Tasks done every day start to take precedent and seem more important than things needing to be done to rezoom our careers.

Interestingly, an article in the Harvard Business Review spoke to this quandary. Deciding what is immediate and what is important plagues just about everyone, not just rezooming attorneys. The article, “Your Desire to Get Things Done Can Undermine Your Effectiveness,” by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats published March 22, 2016, spoke so eloquently about this struggle that I needed to share it with my rezooming colleagues.

The article took a look at how people, who have a list of important and immediate things to do, are sometimes thwarted in being productive by the choices they make. In addition, if they don’t get a number of things on their to-do list done they feel frustrated. How one identifies a task, as important or immediate, dictates how soon it is finished. The article studied the differences in response to completing an immediate vs. an important task. The results may surprise to you.

We tend to choose to do immediate over important tasks because of the good feeling we get from a quick resolution. Getting an immediate job completed satisfies us. It is a subtle but important distinction in how the human brain works. According to the article people have a natural tendency to focus on the things needing immediate attention like email, telephone calls and family needs. We put off the important projects, believing they can wait because the gratification of completion takes longer. Therein lies the Catch 22. Immediate tasks provide instant gratification upon completion while important projects necessitate a longer process to gratification so we tend to put them off until later.

The outcome of this research regarding our thinking surprised me. However, when I looked at my to-do list I realized I avoid important projects as well. I choose to count those short and quick projects as my litmus test of how well I am doing. I prefer the immediate, tangible evidence to the more important but long-term work.

The article looked at two studies, which measured the participant’s productivity. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik conducted the first study in a laboratory in 1927. In Zeigarnik’s study most of the participants were asked to perform certain tasks. In the middle of an assignment they were interrupted. At the end of the day they were asked what they remembered. Ironically, the tasks they never finished were the ones they remembered. Not finishing what we start seems to weigh heavily on our minds. If we don’t finish something we dwell on it and really criticize ourselves for not getting it done.

In a 2011 study, psychologist EJ Masicampo and Roy Baumeister found that people performed much better on long term intricate activities if they had been given a short warm-up assignment to get their brain going. These warm-ups could be mental or physical. It didn’t matter. They only had to be activities the participants can do and be allowed to finish to completion. That initial sense of completion enabled participants to focus on more important things. Fewer participants in this study strayed to an immediate task for satisfaction.

This study confirmed that if a warm-up were interrupted the participants would dwell on the fact they hadn’t completed it rather than pay full attention to a new project. Whether or not a project is immediate or important is a value determination. What we can do to further important projects is kindle a small starting fire of focus on something immediate to build satisfaction, which will sustain us for the longer projects.

The last study in the article provided an example of how immediate and important things were handled in an emergency room setting. Success rates and teamwork in the emergency room are directly related to what was being addressed. Emergency room doctors and staff prefer doing small mundane immediate tasks to completion to large injury cases, which are more important but take more time to complete. If they are interrupted in the middle of a big case they continue to be troubled by the fact they did not finish. The study indicated that a sense of completion was necessary in order for everyone to continue to work at peak effectiveness.

Humans want and need to complete projects. If we don’t, we dwell on it far longer than the things we finish. A project left undone can actually keeps us from moving forward with other projects and cause us to be less effective. These studies show that if we get momentum going we may be in the best frame of mind to take on larger tasks to completion.

Given these studies’ findings it is no wonder the important project of rezooming your legal career takes a back seat to the immediate events now ruling your life. With all the things on your to-do list, it is easy to put off the huge project of rezooming your legal career. Putting a few easy tasks first may help you jumpstart your day. It will start the momentum of success going. Chunking important rezooming steps into smaller immediate pieces may enable you to successfully rezoom your legal career sooner. Like the ER doctor, it may seem easier to do immediate over the important however the important needs to get done and will be easier if you chunk it down and successfully take things to completion.

As a resuming attorney, knowing what’s important is, ironically, important. Make your priorities explicit. Don’t take on five or six projects only to get half way through all of them fueling your frustration. Make them small enough to keep the momentum of success going. Starting your day with a few little brain firing tasks, which will spark your focus and help you complete the bigger rezooming projects. Now get out there and rezoom.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

This entry was posted in Guest Bloggers, Solo & Small Firm Practice and tagged Debra Hamilton. Bookmark the permalink.

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