The Premack Principle

David Premack is a behavioral psychologist who discovered that pleasant tasks can be used as a reward for doing unpleasant tasks. (Of course, if you're a parent and have told your child that he could watch TV after cleaning his room, you knew this already. But you need to wear a lab coat and hang with mice to get a principle named after you.)

Why does the Premack Principle matter to you? Unfortunately, we generally work the other way around at the office: we put off the most unpleasant tasks, preferring instead to do other, more enjoyable tasks. As a result, we don’t get around to actually doing those things in a timely fashion. The phone call to the angry customer, the confrontation with our subordinate, the expense report we need to fill out – these are tasks that all too often are postponed.

More pernicious, however, is the way in which this postponement destroys our overall efficiency. In order to delay as long as possible the ugly reality of tackling those tasks, we actually slow down the pace at which we do the more pleasant jobs – subconsciously, we’re stalling. We actually work more slowly so that we can avoid the unpleasant jobs, with the result that we get sucked into a seemingly endless batch of emails, or an unusually long meeting, or we end up doing other unimportant and non-essential chores. When the end of the day arrives, it’s “too late” to call that customer or confront our subordinate.

We’re no different from the child who watches TV first, and then listlessly moves a pile of laundry from one side of the room to the other for 20 minutes, hoping that his mother will let him off the hook for cleaning his room.

The solution? Do the “worst-first.” When you arrive at the office in the morning, determine the worst task you have and do it first – before email, before phone calls, before coffee. When you return from lunch, do the same thing: get the most unpleasant task out of the way first.

You’ll be amazed at the difference. You’ll get your work done more quickly. You’ll power through your To Do list. You won’t “run out of time” quite as often. And best of all, you won’t feel the dread of that nasty task hanging over your head.

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