Organizations Nov 4, 2019
Why You Should Skip the Easy Wins and Tackle the Hard Task First
New research shows that you and your organization lose out when you procrastinate on the difficult stuff.
Let’s say you’re slogging through a hectic workweek. Your to-do list is crammed with minor tasks like answering emails or submitting invoices, as well as complex projects such as revamping your marketing strategy. In the midst of the chaos, are you more likely to choose the easy or hard tasks?
If your intuition says the easy ones, you’re in good company. Recent research by Maryam Kouchaki, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, and colleagues suggests that people gravitate toward simpler tasks when struggling with a heavy workload.
However, they find that the strategy doesn’t pay off in the long run.
“Short term, the person could actually feel satisfied, less anxious,” Kouchaki says. But avoiding hard tasks indefinitely also cuts off opportunities to learn and improve one’s skills.
“It’s not in the interests of the individual, the group, or the organization in the long run,” she says. “That learning part is super critical.”
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To ward off this temptation, managers should encourage workers to tackle difficult tasks and break projects into bite-sized pieces so that employees still get the satisfaction of completing each step, Kouchaki says.
“You have to do more careful planning to make sure people are given opportunities to learn and are challenged,” she says. An employee who finishes a lot of easy tasks each day may seem productive, but “that’s not ultimately what matters.”
Should You Do Easy or Hard Tasks First?
The idea for the study arose when Kouchaki chatted withBradley Staats of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School about their own tendency to delay hard tasks in favor of easy ones. For instance, they might prep to teach a routine class rather than write a paper.“When we are overwhelmed and busy, we just go with easier tasks, and the difficult tasks tend to pile up,” Kouchaki says.
The researchers wondered if this bias was widespread. If so, what were the short- and long-term performance effects?
Breaking down complex projects into small milestones can help give workers the completion high they get from easy tasks while still supplying the challenge and opportunities for development.
To find out, they collaborated with Diwas KC at Emory University and focused on task choices among doctors at a hospital.
The researchers obtained data on 84 doctors who treated more than 233,000 patients in an East Coast emergency room from 2005 to 2010. As patients entered the ER, a nurse assigned them an acuity level. Higher acuity likely corresponded to more difficult cases.
Physicians then monitored the queue and chose which case to take. While they took the acuity level of the ailment or injury into consideration, they likely also considered factors such as whether other doctors might be better suited to see the patient, how long the patient had been waiting, and whether they had the bandwidth to do a good job, Kouchaki says.
The researchers estimated the physicians’ workload based on the number of patients already under their care. And the team got a sense of how tired each doctor felt in two ways. First, they noted the number of cases the physician had already finished during that shift. Second, they examined a measure called relative value units (RVUs). Hospitals and Medicare use RVUs to capture factors such as the time, skill, and effort devoted to each case. Doctors who had completed more RVUs earlier in their shift likely felt more depleted, the researchers reasoned.
The team then tracked how the doctors’ decisions appeared to affect their performance in both the short and long term.
A False Sense of Progress with Easier Tasks
As the researchers suspected, having a higher workload increased the likelihood that a doctor would choose an easier patient. Each additional patient under their care was linked to an 8 percent higher chance of selecting a lower-acuity case. In addition, the more RVUs a doctor had completed earlier in their shift, the more likely they were to pick easier patients.
In the short term, this strategy seemed to boost productivity. The larger was the share of a physician’s case load devoted to easy cases, the more patients they got through in a shift. “You feel like you’re making more progress,” Kouchaki says.
But the doctors’ long-term performance suffered.
The researchers analyzed each physician’s track record over the six-year study period. Not surprisingly, doctors’ service times tended to drop as they completed more cases over time, suggesting that they were getting more efficient.
But when physicians included a greater share of difficult cases in their overall case load, the “speed-up effect” was stronger, the researchers found. In addition, physicians who took on a higher fraction of tough cases tended to generate more RVUs per patient—a proxy for productivity—in the future.
“Physicians who are picking up difficult patients are the ones who learn over time, and they generate more value for the hospital,” Kouchaki says.
The hospital study was intriguing, but it had a couple of shortcomings. First, it wasn’t a randomized experiment, so the researchers couldn’t say for sure whether the heavy workload caused doctors to pick easy cases. Second, it didn’t fully explain the reason for the phenomenon. Was it fatigue that led the doctors to choose simple patients during an otherwise taxing shift? What about the desire to feel a sense of progress, or feelings of stress?
To investigate, the team conducted a second study online. They recruited 365 participants who were asked to read a sideways picture of a book page and type as much of the text as possible in three minutes. Half the group was asked to simultaneously listen to a song and count the number of times that certain words were used, increasing the workload dramatically.
Afterward, all participants filled out a survey to report their sense of progress, fatigue, and stress level. Then each person had to choose a second task: one they were told was relatively easy and the other somewhat difficult.
In the high-workload group, 76 percent of participants picked the “easy” second task, compared to 64 percent of the low-workload group.
The researchers also analyzed the survey answers. The less progress a participant felt they had made, or the more tired they felt, the more likely they were to choose the easy task. However, stress didn’t appear to play a role.
“It was more about progress and fatigue,” Kouchaki says.
These results suggest that managers should educate employees about the importance of tackling hard tasks for professional growth, Kouchaki says.
It’s about “nudging them and helping them to realize that this is so essential for their long-term learning and performance,” she says. Breaking down complex projects into small milestones can help give workers the completion high they get from easy tasks while still supplying the challenge and opportunities for development.
However, researchers still need to study the effectiveness of such strategies. For instance, if doctors dislike being prodded to take harder cases, the policy might backfire, she says.
In her own work, Kouchaki tries to ensure that she prioritizes difficult tasks. But that doesn’t mean she ignores the easy ones. After all, the menial labor still has to get done. And when she gets stuck on a hard project, sometimes she completes a simple task to give herself a boost.
“Getting a sense of progress is so essential,” she says.
Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.
KC, Diwas S., Bradley R. Staats, Maryam Kouchaki, and Francesca Gino. 2019. “Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Performance.” Management Science. In press.
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