Busy People Feel Better About Missing Deadlines Than Less Busy People, According To Research From Columbia Business School

Career Climbers / 20th April 2018

You feel horribly overworked and far too busy for comfort. Suddenly, your boss adds still more to your workload. Does that make you more productive or less? It may seem counter-intuitive, but a study lead by Professor Keith Wilcox at Columbia Business School suggests that, up to a point, being made extra busy can in fact increase your motivation and productivity.

Busy vs. Non-Busy People

The research takes the old adage of ‘if you want something to get done, give it to a busy person” one step further by showing the correlation between business, motivation, and productivity. 

In the research, titled How Being Busy Can Increase Motivation and Reduce Task Completion Timethe authors suggest that it would normally be fair to assume that as the number of given tasks increases (i.e. as people become busier), workers become less productive.  But through their experiments, the researchers found that this may not always be the case, especially when productivity is viewed in the context of missing a task deadline, self-imposed or otherwise.

“Busy people believe that they are masters of using their time efficiency, which in turn makes them feel like productive workers,” said Wilcox. “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 more so than people who are not busy, which in turn leads them to complete the missed task quickly.”

The researchers contend that this burdensome effect is quite opposite on workers who are not busy and miss a deadline. For these non-busy workers, the same perception of failure exists, but it is likely they were never particularly motivated to finish the task in the first place.  As a result, these workers are likely to continue to be less motivated to complete the task in a prompt manner.

The One Exception?  Feel ‘Overly’ Busy.

The researchers did uncover one fascinating takeaway that busy people employ to justify their missed deadline and alleviate potentially guilty feelings. When busy people feel “particularly busy” at the time that they miss a deadline, they continue to believe that they are using their time effectively. In other words: being overly busy can offset the sense of failure from missing a deadline. Because overly busy people are able to justify their missed deadline, they remain motivated to finish a task and are likely to do so as fast as possible. 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.”

The Takeaway for Managers

So, to get the best from their workers, should employers simply overload them with more work? In a workplace setting, that could be a simple and effective antidote to chronic procrastination and task-completion tardiness. But, there are likely limits to this. The study cautions that extremely busy people may feel “overloaded” and “overwhelmed,” leading them to disengage entirely from a task.  

The sweet spot for managers is this: rather than give workers more tasks, worker productivity could be increased simply by making workers feel busier. For example, employers could break larger tasks down into smaller sub-tasks and communicate those as a way of increasing an employee’s perceived busyness without actually giving them extra work to do.  

Wilcox added: “A simple way for individuals to become more productive is to remind themselves of all the different tasks they need to do.”

The study is co-authored by Wilcox; Juliano Laran of the University of MiamiAndrew T. Stephen of Oxford University; and Peter P. Zubcsek of the University of Florida.

To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted by Columbia Business School researchers, visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.

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