Got Any More Room on Your Plate?

busy people

This post originally appeared on the Blacklight, our new newsletter for professionals. 

The scene: your desk, 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. You’re cruising along, ticking tasks off your To-Do-List like a boss. Then, your supervisor decides to dump seven more items onto your already-overflowing plate.

Now here’s the $64K question: does that increased workload make you more productive, or less?

We would assume that as people become busier, they become less productive. But a study led by Columbia Business School Professor Keith Wilcox suggests that being extra busy can actually increase your motivation and productivity—up to a point.

Smart people know to turn to busy folks for help. Why? The busy among us usually have an accurate grasp of how long it will take to complete a task. They’ve done the mental math and calculated whether they can manage it all. But, they’re also human—and pride themselves on their productivity prowess.

Your reaction to a missed deadline: Meh, who cares? Or, Aaaarrgghh!!!

In one study, the researchers asked participants to think of a failed task from the last week and how much they had on their plate at the time. Participants also answered questions about how motivated they felt to complete that task now. In some cases, they were told to report back if they managed to cross it off their “To Do” list a week later.

“Busy people believe that they are masters of using their time efficiency,” Wilcox writes. “But missing a deadline is a widely-accepted sign that one has failed to manage his time efficiently, and busy people feel the burden of this failure moreso than people who are not busy, which in turn leads them to complete the missed task quickly.”

As Wilcox explains:

“Employers hope that all workers — whether they feel busy or not — will take immediate action to address missed deadlines. And employers are likely to expect non-busy workers to complete tardy tasks more expeditiously than busy workers, simply on account of the fact that they have more free time.

But our research shows that this is not the case, and that people who feel that they missed a deadline because they were so busy are more likely to complete a task as quickly as possible.”

For those non-busy workers, the same perception of failure exists. But, they probably didn’t feel particularly motivated to finish the task in the first place. As a result, these workers will likely continue to feel less motivated to finish the task promptly.

DO try this at work

Is your workplace plagued by chronic procrastination and task-completion tardiness? Wilcox and his team suggest supervisors use Jedi mind tricks this strategy to increase productivity. Try making workers feel busier by breaking larger tasks into smaller subtasks. This increases an employee’s perceived busyness without giving them extra work to do.

Newton, of course, said it best: a body in motion stays in motion. Even when your plate overfloweth, if you use your time effectively, you’ll stay motivated and productive despite a missed deadline or two.


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