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'Eisenhower rule' explains why it's hard to break the cycle of poverty, study says

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6 2012 12:03 p.m. MST

In addition to being a World War II general and president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower was a master of time management. The phrase, "Don’t let the urgent overcome the important,” is attributed to him. His basic idea was that all tasks should be evaluated based on how urgent and important they are. Tasks that are neither important nor urgent are dropped, while tasks that are important and urgent are done immediately. Tasks that are unimportant and urgent are delegated while tasks that are important but not urgent get an end date and are done personally.

It is easier for the rich to follow this so-called Eisenhower rule, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. These researchers argue that immediate problems draw people’s attention and as people use cognitive resources to solve these problems they have fewer resources leftover to solve or even notice other problems.

To test their theory researchers set up small experiments in which people are asked to play simple games. They simulate poverty by giving some players fewer resources. They found that players in the “poverty” condition devote more attention to the current round and less attention to future rounds.

Summing up the main research findings, Alex Taborrok of Marginal Revolution said these researchers "show that poverty (over)-stimulates attention to urgent problems which results in less attention given to important problems." By reducing some of the day-to-day urgency of the poor experience, he wonders if people "may become more open to devoting attention to important problems like deworming or hygiene or paying the rent which would in the not-so-long-run result in greater benefits."

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