Sometimes it can feel as though the more we try to get done, the less we accomplish. Now a new study validates what many of us have long suspected - if we want to be more productive, we need to become less busy.
Too many deadlines – such as upcoming appointments – makes us less efficient with our time, the research shows.
People facing upcoming appointments, meetings, tasks, etc., perceive they have less time than they actually do, an eight-test study shows. In addition, these boundaries result in people performing fewer tasks, and make people less likely to attempt extended-time tasks that could actually get done.
When up against such an upcoming appointment, people tended to procrastinate on the long-time chore such as writing that report and reverted to working on shorter-time tasks, such as making a work call or typing up a quick synopsis.
Or they'd skip both entirely to focus on the simplest of work forms, like answering emails – or even scheduling more boundaries.
"It's something we can all relate to," says coauthor Stephen Nowlis, professor of marketing at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, who started this project when coauthor Gabriela N. Tonietto of Rutgers University was a PhD candidate at Olin and coauthor Selin A. Malkoc of Ohio State was an Olin colleague.
"It could be anything. You have a deadline, and what do you do with your time? We don't think about it as much from the perspective of consuming it, but, realistically, time is something we probably consume as much if not more than any other resource. So how are we consuming our time?"
The team conducted more than eight tests over a two-year period beginning in 2015 involving 2,300-plus participants to see how people in various situations arrived at budgeting scheduled and unscheduled windows of time.
Tests reported in the Journal of Consumer Research study include:
- Using the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) survey platform, 200 participants – split evenly between those with an upcoming appointment and those with a free schedule – had to pick between a 30-minute chore paying $2.50 and a 45-minute chore paying $5. They had an hour's time. But the participants with an upcoming appointment felt they had 7.82 fewer minutes in their hour to commit to their chore than the people with an open schedule.
- At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, 134 passengers were asked to take a 15-minute survey—about half of the passengers had 30 minutes before boarding, the rest had one hour. Some 26 percent of the people facing a shorter window agreed to participate, compared to 46 percent of the passengers with four times the allotted survey window.
- At Washington University, 158 undergraduates were told they had either a strict, five-minute window until their appointment or an implied boundary with "about five minutes to do whatever you want." In the same five-minute period, the latter group accomplished 2.38 tasks compared to 1.86 tasks by the hard-timeline group.
"How do you best manage your time? How much scheduling do you need?" Nowlis says. "These are interesting questions."
The study provides some answers for trying to prevent issues. Basically, it counsels people to schedule wisely: Maybe leave a chunk of the workday open to accomplish extended-time tasks.
"If you have some big tasks, too many scheduled things will affect your productivity," Nowlis says. "A lot of scheduling is fine for shorter tasks, so find the environment that works for you."