Want to Be More Productive? Tackle Hard Tasks First

Why workers with “task completion bias” could generate less value for their companies.

Don’t Take the Easy Way Out Does it make you feel more productive to get easier tasks out of the way before tackling tougher projects? A new paper suggests that while completing easier tasks first might offer a short-term sense of satisfaction, it could negatively impact long-term productivity.

The working paper’s co-authors include Diwas KC, associate professor of information systems and operations management at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia; Bradley Staats, associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Maryam Kouchaki, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; and Francesca Gino, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts.

The team studied physicians in an urban hospital emergency room, where the workflow was unpredictable. After analyzing data involving 90,000 patient interactions during 2006 and 2007, the researchers found that as workloads increased, some physicians were more likely to see patients with the easiest conditions first—a tendency the researchers call “task completion bias” (TCB).

Physicians with high TCB had higher short-term productivity levels than those with low TCB. But because they chose to frontload their work with easy patients, their work generated less long-term profit for the hospital than those who saw more difficult cases first.

In follow-up lab experiments, the researchers wanted to discover why people were susceptible to TCB. They assigned participants to either “high-workload” or “low-workload” conditions, before asking them to complete tasks of varying difficulty. Once again, those in high-workload conditions exhibited high TCB, reporting that they enjoyed the positive feelings they derived from completing each easy task—in other words, they received a “completion high.”

The researchers suggest that managers might want to “educate workers about the performance consequences of avoiding hard tasks” to help them understand the value that more difficult work brings to the organization. Or, if managers want to exploit employees’ tendency to seek out “completion highs,” they could break harder tasks into sub-components, “each with a clearly defined indicator of completion so that completion occurs more often.”

The working paper is available at hbswk.hbs.edu/item/task-selection-and-workload-a-focus-on-completing-easy-taskshurts-long-term-performance.