The IMPORTANT or the important: Which are you choosing?

One of the things that drives me nuts as a college professor is watching students text in my classes. They think they’re being sneaky, but they’re not—it’s pretty obvious what they’re doing when they’re staring at their crotches and laughing.

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Now my disdain for texting in class has little to do with being disrespected or anything like that. Rather, it has to do with the fact that texting impedes class performance, as my colleague Mandy Gingerich has clearly shown. Contrary to popular belief, we are not good multi-taskers. So, for every moment my students are texting, they’re probably missing something important. And when I see my frequently texting students doing poorly in class, as they often do, it always makes me wonder, “Was it worth it? Was texting really that important?”

What’s Important?

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “importance” recently: what’s truly important in our lives and whether we’re spending our time doing things that really matter to us.

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And as I look around, I think the answer to that question is quite often, “No.” In fact, in my last post, I spent some time talking about a common excuse we often give for not doing important things in our lives (“I just don’t have time”) and how it’s really just another way of saying, “It’s not that important to me.”

I also suggested that “important” is defined by how we behave. For instance, if you’re spending your time texting with friends when you should be studying (because you have a big exam coming up), texting is more important than studying. Or if you’re watching TV when you should be exercising (because you want to lose 10 lbs. for a rapidly approaching high school reunion), watching TV is more important than exercising.

I don’t care how much you claim that studying is more important than texting, if you’re texting, it’s more important to you.

End of story.

“But wait,” some of you might be saying. “Exercising and being in shape are definitely more important to me than watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy—I mean, I already know that [spoiler alert!] McDreamy dies. Your argument doesn’t make any sense.”

(By the way, if any of you are really wondering, no, I’ve never seen Grey’s Anatomy before.)

“IMPORTANT” or Just “important”: What’s the Difference?

Well, this is because there are actually two different types of “important” that we can talk about: IMPORTANT (“BIG important”) or important (“small important”).

As you might be able to guess, IMPORTANT is the type of “important” we should be focusing on as much as possible in our day-to-day activities. This type of IMPORTANT is what we’re referring to when we think about really big goals we might have—in other words, the big hairy audacious goals (or BHAGs) that push the upper limits of our abilities and get us really excited about the future.

For example, maybe you want to get in really good shape. Or write a best-selling novel. Or get into graduate school. Or become a successful school counselor. Or open your own business. Or find the cure for cancer. Or be the hero in your own movie.

Only by consistently engaging in IMPORTANT activities can we work toward our long-term goals and build the kinds of lives we want for ourselves.

Unfortunately, much too often, important activities are the ones that have the greatest impact on our moment-to-moment behavior.

Rather than moving us toward our most-desired lives, important activities are those that either provide us with some short-term pleasure or that seem “urgent” in nature (even though they’re often not). Unfortunately, important things keep us from doing IMPORTANT things.

Let me give you two personal examples.

1. A couple nights ago, I was practicing guitar (something very IMPORTANT to me). After practicing for a half hour or so, I decided to take a short break and watch a little TV (big mistake!). Unfortunately, I came across the season finale of Naked and Afraid (which, if you haven’t seen it, is interesting for reasons other than the people on the show are both naked and afraid). Rather than turn off the TV after my break was over, I simply muted the volume.

And, of course, for the next hour or so, every time something interesting came on the TV screen, I stopped practicing and watched for a few minutes.

Needless to say, my practice session was not the most efficient it’s ever been. Yes, watching TV was pleasant in the short term, but it certainly didn’t get me any closer to improving my guitar playing.

2. Earlier today, I was sitting at my computer writing (which is an IMPORTANT part of my job) when I heard the familiar “ding” of an email arriving in my Inbox. (By the way, having your Inbox open all the time is a real productivity killer.) It was from a student who had a question about a class I’m teaching this semester. In fact, the question was relatively unimportant and probably didn’t require an immediate response.

But what did I do?

I did what many of you have probably done in similar situations: I put my IMPORTANT work to the side so I could immediately address this seemingly important (“urgent”) email. By the time I got back to writing, 5 or so minutes later, I had, for all intents and purposes, lost my momentum, effectively ending my IMPORTANT writing session.

Why We Choose the “important” over the “IMPORTANT”

So why is it that we’re so likely to fall prey to important activities, even though we know that we should be working on more IMPORTANT things?

To understand this tendency, we need to take a brief foray into the world of psychological decision-making. Although I won’t go until a lot of detail on the topic, suffice it to say that several decades of research has provided some answers to why we are so quick to choose the important over the IMPORTANT (like texting when we should be studying).

For a long time, psychologists have known that our behavior is strongly affected by the consequences we experience after we behave.

Some of these consequences are called “reinforcers” (or the less-precise term “rewards”), and when we experience them, we are more likely to behave in similar ways in the future. For instance, if we go to a restaurant and get a good meal, we’re more likely to go there again. Or if we study for an exam and get a good grade, we’re more likely to study again.

(There are also consequences called “punishers,” but I’m not going to spend time discussing them right now.)

The interesting thing about consequences is that many factors affect their “psychological value” (which is what ultimately determines the choices we make).

For instance, the value of a reinforcer is affected by its delay, or how long we have to wait for it. And in general, we prefer sooner over later: $100 now is more valuable than $100 in 6 months.

Another factor that affects the value of a consequence is its magnitude, or size. And in general, we prefer larger over smaller: $1000 is more valuable than $100.

(And you thought size didn’t matter.)

When reinforcers entail only different delays or different magnitudes (as in the above examples), choosing is straightforward: sooner over later and larger over smaller. But choosing gets much more difficult when factors are combined, for example, when a “sooner-smaller” consequence is put up against a “later-larger” consequence.

Take, for instance, the following:

Would you rather have $100 now or $500 in 1 week?

In this case, delay and magnitude combine to affect the psychological value of each of these options.

For many, the psychological value of $500 in a week is greater than $100 now. And so we have no problem waiting.

But what about this?

Would you rather have $100 now or $500 in 5 years?

In this case, the lengthy delay to $500 decreases its psychological value to the point where the smaller-sooner option is now more psychologically valuable. And so we choose the smaller amount of money over the larger amount.

In fact, many of the choices we make on a daily basis involve choosing between “smaller-sooner” reinforcers and “larger-later” reinforcers.

Eating a piece of cake now vs. exercising and being healthy in 6 months

Buying an expensive pair of shoes now vs. being debt-free in a year

Texting in class vs. listening and getting a good exam grade in 2 weeks

And in many of these cases, because waiting tends to devalue a reinforcer, we choose the sooner-smaller option.

We eat the cake. We buy the shoes. We text in class.

(By the way, these choices frequently entail an element of “effort,” too, because they often require us to choose over and over again in order to reach the later-larger outcome.)

Importantly (pun intended), a similar “sooner-smaller vs. later-larger” (and often effortful) choice occurs when we choose between the important and the IMPORTANT.

And unfortunately, as you might guess, the things we deem IMPORTANT often require us to wait. In fact, as Jim Collins has noted, BHAGs are often 10 or more years in the making (and often hard to achieve). Therefore, because we have to wait for these reinforcers, they lose their psychological value, even if they are hugely IMPORTANT to us. Moreover, because important activities are usually staring us right in the face, we frequently choose this lesser option.

Choosing the “IMPORTANT”: What to Do?

So, there you have it: a primary reason why we so frequently choose the important over the IMPORTANT.

Importantly (pun once again intended), there are ways to increase the chances that we will choose the IMPORTANT over the important.

First, we need to become more aware of our primary goals—those BHAGs that motivate us to act and get us excited about the future. In the moment-to-moment minutiae of our everyday lives, it’s easy to forget what really matters to us. To counter this, we need to dream big and keep those dreams clearly in sight.

We also need to come up with detailed plans that will allow us to make consistent progress toward our most valued goals. Although our BHAGs may be far off in terms of time, we can identify smaller, more easily manageable tasks that, when tackled consistently, will continue to move us in the right direction.

We also need to prioritize our most IMPORTANT tasks on a daily basis, even when the pleasurable and (seemingly) urgent are calling us to choose them instead.

And, finally, when confronted with difficult choices each and every day (as most of us are), we need to think about the lure of the “sooner-smaller” reinforcer and ask ourselves:

“Is this IMPORTANT or just important?”

It may not always be easy choosing the IMPORTANT when the important is staring us right in the face. But in the end, it’s definitely worth it.


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3 thoughts on “The IMPORTANT or the important: Which are you choosing?”

  1. Great post! Discounting applies to so many things in life.

    This post reminded me of a quote: “Discipline Is Just Choosing Between What You Want Now And What You Want Most.”

    Actually, it also reminds me of how Barry Burkhart often would refer to the “Tyranny of the immediate” – how those things that had a deadline would take precedence over other tasks that are more important but not tied to any specific deadline.

    1. Thanks a lot, Meghan. I like Barry’s “tyranny of the immediate” idea. It’s so easy to get lured in by the “urgent” and then forget about what’s most important to us. I definitely feel like that happens to a lot of academics. There’s so much to do, we often bury our heads and just try to hammer through it. Hope you and Jim are doing well.

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