“Completion bias” is a term used by business professors Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats to describe the natural tendency people have to overly focus on tasks that demand immediate attention rather than tasks that bring them closer to achieving their long-term goals. “Human brains are wired to seek completion and the pleasure it brings,” they write at HBR.org. “Completing simple tasks, such as answering emails or posting updates on your Twitter account, takes little time and allows you to check off items on your to-do list.”
The upside of doing mundane tasks first
While completion bias can distract you from making a dent in more important long term goals, research by Gino and Staats (and others) suggests that finishing immediate, mundane tasks can improve your ability to tackle tougher,more important things. “Your brain releases dopamine when you achieve goals. And since dopamine improves attention, memory, and motivation, even achieving a small goal can result in a positive feedback loop that makes you more motivated to work harder going forward.”
Their research included monitoring 500 employees from a wide range of industries. They found that those who started the day by first completing a couple of short tasks and then checked off more complicated tasks as they completed them were more satisfied with their jobs, felt the highest level of motivation, and, based on their records, had accomplished the most throughout the week. “Completing the first few tasks quickly, it seems, gave them the boost they needed to get through the rest of their work,” say Gino and Staats.
In addition, completing small tasks frees up the cognitive resources people need to tackle other activities. In fact, research has shown that not completing tasks occupies your mind: You seem unable to forget tasks you’ve started but haven’t completed, so you have a hard time devoting your full attention to other activities.
Take control of completion bias
Advice from Gino and Staats
- Don’t succumb to completion bias—don’t allow yourself to be sucked into the mundane and unimportant.
- Strike a balance between easier short-term efforts and tougher long-term goals. One way is to audit how you structure your workday and, if necessary, change how you plan your daily tasks.
- Know your priorities. Many people don’t identify their top three to five priorities—or fail to change how they structure their workdays when priorities change. Making priorities explicit will help you devote sufficient time to them.