Keith Wilcox at Columbia University and his colleagues analysed task deadline and completion data from over 28,000 users of the productivity app (they don’t state the name of the app, but it sounds a bit like i done this). In total, the data set included 586,808 tasks – everything from doctor’s appointments to project reports – spanning a period of 538 days.
As a proxy for missed deadlines, the researchers looked to see how many times users had rescheduled a task deadline – they inferred that the more times a user had rescheduled, the more likely it was that they’d missed their original deadline. Meanwhile, the researchers used the number of other incomplete tasks each user had on the system as a measure of their busyness.
Looking at the data overall, tasks with changed deadlines were less likely to be completed – this is consistent with past research that’s shown that missed deadlines have a demoralising effect and reduce the likelihood of task success. However, this rule was moderated by people’s busyness, such that busier people were more likely than less busy people to complete delayed tasks.
Another way the researchers looked at this was to focus on how long it took to complete delayed tasks that were eventually finished. In this case, after failing to achieve a task by its original deadline, the busier people were, the quicker they were to subsequently complete that task.
To illustrate this, the researchers divided users of the app into those who were busy (they had multiple incomplete tasks on the system at the same time) and those who were non-busy, with just one task on the system at a time. Non-busy people took an average of 37.6 days to complete a task for which they’d shifted the deadline at least once, compared with 19.4 days for non-delayed tasks (a difference of 18 days – again illustrating the usual drag of missed deadlines). In contrast, busy people took an average of 25.5 days to complete tasks where they’d changed the original deadline and 12.2 days to complete non-delayed tasks (a difference of just 13 days). So busier people were not only quicker at getting tasks done in general, but they also seemed to be less adversely effected by the stalling effect of a missed deadline.
Complementing the evidence from the productivity app, the researchers also conducted a study with students that involved them choosing a deadline for sending back a survey. Focusing on just those students who missed their chosen deadline, the researchers found that busier students were quicker to subsequently complete the survey – in other words, just as was the case among the app users, busier people tended to cope better with short-term failure.
The researchers’ theory is that busy people are more likely to feel that they are fulfilling their larger goal of using their time effectively, even if they failed to meet their deadline for a specific task. Less busy people, by contrast, are more likely to feel down-heartened by a specific failure and to make negative inferences about themselves and their own productivity.
Wilcox and his team provided some evidence to back up this interpretation. In three other studies involving hundreds of participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the researchers asked people to describe recent tasks which they’d failed to complete on time. Again, they found that busier people tended to respond better to these short-term failures (that is, they were quicker to subsequently complete the delayed tasks), and that this was largely explained by busier people’s belief that they’d been using their time effectively.
Missing deadlines is an incredibly common experience, and it often has a bad effect on people’s productivity, hitting morale and provoking procrastination. The researchers’ basic point is that being busy, or probably just feeling busy, can inoculate us against this demoralising effect. When you’re busy and you miss a deadline, it’s easy to think to yourself that you you may have lost the battle, but you’re still winning the productivity war. For this reason, the researchers suggest that it may even be beneficial to engender in yourself or your staff, a feeling of busyness – not too much obviously, you don’t want to feel overloaded, but just enough.
“In a workplace setting, purposively keeping people busy may be a simple and effective antidote to chronic procrastination and task-completion tardiness,” the researchers said. “For example, managers may find that their subordinates are more likely to be productive if they give them more, not less, to do.”
Wilcox K, Laran J, Stephen AT, & Zubcsek PP (2016). How being busy can increase motivation and reduce task completion time. Journal of personality and social psychology, 110 (3), 371-84 PMID: 26963764
We’re happier when busy but our instinct is for idleness
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