My first publishing job was copyediting papers for an academic journal that ran anywhere from 400 to 500 pages once a week. (Never underestimate the amount of research happening in chemical physics.) Four employees, including me, copyedited full-time, with one managing editor chipping in when the workload was high. We worked on a first-in-first-out (FIFO) policy because there’s some importance to publishing scientific findings in a timely fashion. Part of our job was to make sure papers moved through the publishing process quickly.
Papers arrived in oversized plastic envelopes, stamped with a date on the front, and were filed into a bin. When new papers arrived, they were placed in the rear of the bin so that we copyeditors could pull from the front and maintain FIFO. Every now and again, I’d go to the bin and see a really thick envelope, which almost certainly contained a 35-page paper dense with math equations and a long list of references that would probably need extensive fixing. Not often, but every now and again, I’d see that thick envelope and bypass it, choosing the smaller envelope behind it instead.
What, if any, are the consequences of an employee taking matters into her own hands and reordering tasks assigned to her?
Why We Reorder Tasks
I give the example of my copyediting job to make the point that knowledge workers can be in a line of work that has a fixed task order, as sometimes we assume that those kinds of jobs are only found in the manufacturing sector. The thing about fixed task order is there are many cases in which the employee has some discretion to deviate from the order.
In my case, I only ever skipped a paper if I wouldn’t have enough time to finish it. If there were only 40 minutes left in the workday, I knew that productivity would be higher overall if I picked a shorter paper that I could fully complete in less than 40 minutes, rather than start a long paper that I would have to resume tomorrow. Picking up a paper midway through the following day has a setup cost associated with it. I’d have to reorient myself to the paper, check any prior notes I had made, and so forth.
People deviate from a prescribed task order all the time for very good reasons. In the medical field, radiologist know they can be more productive if they look at a few scans with similar characteristics back-to-back (Ibanez et al., 2017) than if they simply follow a FIFO policy. Research shows that it’s true. Ibanez et al. analyzed 2.4 million radiology diagnoses and learned that the radiologists spend less time reading scans when they batch work (meaning they choose to read scans that share similarities) without affecting quality. Radiologists in this study had only, on average, about five or six tasks in their queue at any given time. While it’s suggested that they work on a first-in-first-out basis, changing the order is at their discretion. It’s easier to read three CT scans in a row, rather than break them up with an ultrasound and an fMRI. Batching the work benefitted productivity even when accounting for the time lost sorting through the task list to find tasks that could be batched together.
Other types of workers reorder tasks that were initially assigned to them in a specified order because the workers have specialized knowledge that the task scheduler does not have. Ibanez et al. give the example of delivery truck drivers, who know traffic patterns better than their schedulers. Drivers also might change their task order to account for changing weather and traffic patterns in real time. In other words, they adjust to the conditions at hand.
But people reorder tasks for another reason, too: to prioritize quicker, easier tasks. In research lingo, this approach to task order is called “shortest expected processing time.” Knocking out a few quick tasks gives people a sense of completion and the feeling that they are being productive. We do it all the time with personal to-do lists. If you tackle the quick and easy tasks first, they actually get done, and that feels good. You’re making progress. If you tackle the longest, hardest task first, it takes longer to complete, and you’re not marking off any other to-dos during that time, which feels less productive.
In short, sometimes we reorder tasks to increase productivity. But sometimes we reorder tasks and inadvertently decrease productivity. What causes that difference?
Factors That Lead to Reordering Tasks
Two primary factors that determine whether we deviate from a prescribed task order and whether it benefits productivity are, unsurprisingly, the person doing the task and the task itself.
“Person” not only refers to personality traits and intrinsic motivation, but also level of experience. In the case of the radiologists, more experienced doctors were more likely to deviate from the prescribed task order, and productivity gains were larger for those who had been doing it longer, too.
The “shortest expected processing time” approach can be driven by emotions (the satisfaction of feeling productive) or other factors. It’s easier to knock out shorter tasks during times when we feel under the weather or sleep deprived, for example. We may not want to tackle the long, difficult task if we know we’ll have to pause halfway through because the workday is over.
Procrastination may be another reason people reorder task. A study of employees who approve and reject patent applications for the U.S. Patent Office (Frakes & Wasserman, 2016) concluded that people who worked from home reordered tasks in a way that indicated procrastination. Workers were less likely to exhibit the same work behaviors when they were in the office with more oversight.
What Can You Do?
If you have the self-awareness to recognize that you are reordering tasks for a reason that does not benefit productivity, such as you are focusing on short and easy tasks because you’re procrastinating or because you would rather feel the satisfaction of checking things off your to-do list, it would probably be to your benefit to revert back to the prescribed task order.
On the other hand, if you are an experience worker with specialized knowledge of the work itself or the conditions in which it’s being done, by all means reorder tasks in the way you think is best for productivity.
Coviello, D., Ichino, A. & Persico, N. (2010). Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin: The Impact of Task Juggling on Workers’ Speed of Job Completion. The National Bureau of Economic Research (Working Paper No. 16502). [SSRN Electronic Journal 10/2010; DOI:10.2139/ssrn.1753027]
Frakes, M. D. & Wasserman, M. F. (2016). Procrastination in the Workplace: Evidence from the U.S. Patent Office. NBER working paper no. 22987. Retrieved April 5, 2017.
Ibanez, M. R., Clark, J. R., Huckman, R. S., & Staats, B. R. (2017). Discretionary Task Ordering: Queue Management in Radiological Services. Harvard Business School working paper no. 16-051. Retrieved Aug. 7, 2017 from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2677200.
Lead image by Nadja Schnetzler, CC.