Tips

The Fewer the Better

Prioritize your requests to get more done

October 29, 2023

Today, I’ve asked Todd Rogers to share his Tip of the Week. 

One morning, I left a note on the counter for my daughter, asking her to take care of three things before going to school: 

Hey Kiddo! 

This morning, please remember to:  

1. Circle which of the two shirts on the printout you want me to order for you.

2. Bring your new pencils to school. 

3. Complete the form on the table and bring it to school (should take ~5 minutes). 

The shirt and pencils were easy. The form required more effort, but it was much more important. The night before, we’d discussed the consequences of not getting it done: She wouldn’t be eligible for a sports team she wanted to play on.  

Later that day, I saw that she wanted the green shirt, and the pencils were gone. But the blank form was still on the table.  

I had only three requests. How could she have skipped the most important one?

Research finds that when we ask people to do multiple tasks, with an easy one and a hard one, most people do the easy one first. Psychologists call this tendency the smaller tasks trap, which leaves people vulnerable to getting distracted before they can complete the harder one. Other research finds that asking people to do a lot of tasks can result in them doing fewer in total than asking them to do a smaller number from the start.  

Looking back, I should have taken stock of my priorities that morning and only asked my daughter to deal with the form. I wanted the shirt chosen and the pencils packed, but they could be done on another day—one when they wouldn’t distract her from a more important assignment.  

Don’t create long task lists for other people. Too many requests can lead to fewer getting done. 

Do prioritize what you ask of young people. This may mean holding off on some easier, less important tasks, but it can be worth it. Being selective in what you ask for can accomplish more in the long run.   

With intention and gratitude,

Todd 

About the author

Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at Harvard University and the author, with Jessica Lasky-Fink, of Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World.