When you’re having a truly unproductive day, it may be worth your while to quit and let that day go, rather than force yourself to try and eke something out of it.
Here’s some interesting research that shows people are terrible at thinking about their productivity in the long term and instead focus too much on what’s happening today. The data come from New York City taxi drivers in a study done in the 1990s (Camerer et al., 1997). Taxi drivers have good days and bad days, in terms of how many passengers they pick up and how much they earn in fares. Now, there are different kinds of taxi drivers who lease or own their vehicles in different ways, but putting those details aside for the moment, most taxi drivers can work as many or as few hours as they want. They can call it quits early. They can stay out late if they want. It’s up to them.
So here’s what they do: When taxi drivers are having a good day and making a lot of money, they tend to stop working earlier than on days when they are having trouble getting fares. On days when they’re struggling to make money, the work longer.
Good Days and Bad Days
The drivers seem to be driven by a daily minimum amount of money they hope to earn. When they hit that minimum early in the day, they wrap up work sooner than when they struggle to reach their daily threshold.
The thing is, on days when cabbies are making good money, the conditions of their world—such as the number of tourist, the weather, and so forth—are driving high demand for taxis, meaning if the drivers keep working, they’ll continue to make good money. A profitable day could be so much more profitable if only the drivers would keep at it. Likewise, on days when fares are bad, fares will probably continue to be bad, so what’s the point in working longer hours?
Camerer and his colleagues suggest that drivers could make an equal amount of money per month, or more, if they stopped worrying so much about hitting a daily average and instead thought about their monthly wages.
If drivers worked longer hours on good days, they’d make more money. And they could still have days when they finish work early, but those days should be the low-fare days when the amount of possible earnings they are giving up is small anyway, not the high-fare days.
But drivers, in particular lesser experienced drivers, can’t help but think one day a time. That’s a problem a lot of people face when trying to be more productive. They focus on “What have I done or not done today,” rather than thinking about what they have or have not done in the longer term.
What Can You Do?
The lesson we can all learn about productivity from taxi drivers is to keep in mind the larger picture. Take advantage of those highly productive times when work or progress toward a goal is going well. If we can keep up with averages in the longer term, then we should not worry too much about having a bad day every so often. Sometimes, it’s better to call it quits when productivity is low and save your energy for the next time it’s high.
Camerer, C.F., Babcock, L., Loewenstein, G., and Thaler, R. H. (1997). Labor Supply of New York City Cab Drivers: One Day at a Time,The Quarterly Journal of Economics,112(2), 407–441.
Photo by Nau Nau, CC.