Why we prioritize the small tasks

small tasks

Why do we always put off the big, important tasks and tackle the small tasks first? Journalist Fleur Baxmeier keeps getting caught in the same trap. Is there a better way to approach all the things we need to do?

Thirteen years ago, when I went to view the house where I now live, my first thought was, ‘It’s perfect, but the metal kitchen cabinets have to go. I need to get rid of those rickety cupboards, the old oven, the moldy drain and the leaky refrigerator’. Those were the first things I planned to do. ‘Then I’ll make the layout more efficient, add new white tiles, put in a dishwasher and new pipes under 
the floor,’ I told myself. ‘It will beautiful.’

The only stumbling block was that I work from home as a freelance journalist, so I had to think really hard about when all the work could be done. Preferably not during a really busy period, but then again, how do you plan for that? Finding the right contractor was another problem. There are plenty of builders, but which one should I choose? My boyfriend and I couldn’t completely agree on the colors either. The same went for the boyfriend after him, by the way.

Years passed, and I thought about that unrealized new kitchen often. Almost every evening, actually, whenever I would make yet another attempt to prepare a meal on the two burners that still worked, and occasionally also in the morning when I would find the butter frozen into a layer of ice at the back 
of the refrigerator. And the need to make major changes to my open-plan kitchen, visible from every corner of the ground floor, became an excuse to put off making other changes to my home’s interior, too.


The new-kitchen-that-never-materialized had a paralyzing effect on everything. But actually doing something about it? Forget 
it. It is a common phenomenon referred to as ‘The Importance Trap’. “It’s related to procrastination, but the difference is that you can also postpone something because it’s not enjoyable,” says Paul Loomans, Dutch Zen monk and the author of Time Surfing.

“The Importance Trap is actually about all those tasks that are so important to us that we wait until all the conditions are just right, every circumstance is perfect and we have all the knowledge we need before we tackle them. We want to be completely covered before we take the first step, but wind up 
in a sort of stalemate, even though we are constantly thinking how we need to just do it. It’s something that almost everyone can relate to—it’s that common of a problem.”

Putting off the things that matter has to do with the times we live in, when information is coming at us in small increments and at great speed. Take emails, for example. They send a constant drip-feed of demands into our daily life, and there are always a few that require prompt attention.

“If your focus is on these smaller tasks, you’ll never get around to completing that one large one,” Loomans says. “This is why it’s important to be proactive instead of reactive. Suppose you get up in the morning and you want to do your paperwork today, but you open your email inbox first instead. At this point, you’re taking a reactive approach, because the emails are flooding in and you are going to read and respond to them. Responses to your responses then start coming in, so you stay where you are, driven only by what is coming into your inbox.”

  • The complete story about The Importance Trap can be found in Issue 26.

Text Fleur Baxmeier Photography Micah Hallahan/Unsplash.com