There’s More Than One Way to View Setup Costs

What are your setup costs? When thinking about personal productivity, setup costs are meaningful. In the traditional sense, a setup cost is the time and sometimes also the money required to prepare to start a task.

For example, last year I hired a sewer to make custom covers for my sofa. His set up costs involved carrying his very heavy sewing machine and bolts of fabric into my apartment, moving the furniture as needed to make sense, and rolling out the fabric. It took maybe 45 minutes. He didn’t finish making the covers in one day, and he asked if he could leave out most of his materials for the night so that he wouldn’t have to spend 45 minutes putting everything back only to waste another 45 minutes the next day setting up again. He wanted to avoid paying the same setup costs if he didn’t have to.

Setup costs come in many shapes and forms. Another version of a setup cost that’s more familiar to knowledge workers is the time it takes to orient to tasks that need to get done. Before you dig into your hard work, do you make sure you have a cup of coffee or water nearby? Do you go to the bathroom first? Do you check your email to get it off your mind or close your email program altogether? Do you have to pull up reference material?

A common topic among productivity enthusiasts is the wasteful time it takes to reorient to a task after an interruption or distraction. Workplace interruptions can be external, like a boss asking you a question, or it can be internal, like your own desire to check email. After the interruption, knowledge workers typically take anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour to reorient themselves. We don’t usually think of this orientation time as a setup cost, but that’s what it is. It’s the time and preparation that’s required before we can begin a task.

That said, not all interruptions affect productivity negatively. One study shows how sometimes, interruptions can cause people to work faster (Zijlstra et al., 1999). In this study, subjects were put into a mock office environment and were asked to complete a very well defined editing task. Subjects who were interrupted briefly from time to time spent slightly less time on task on average to get the project done. A control group who didn’t get interrupted spent more time on task.

Another unusual example of a setup cost that always comes to mind for me has to do with a car repair. Many years ago, I took my car to a mechanic. I don’t remember what needed to be fixed, but I do remember that the mechanic called me and told me the repair would be covered by my warranty, which was lucky for me because it required taking out the engine, and that’s expensive and timely to do. So the mechanic said, “If you think you need a new clutch, which isn’t covered by your warranty, you should do it now because then I don’t have to charge you to move the engine a second time.” I didn’t need a new clutch, but the point was made. If you have an expensive setup cost, it makes sense to do as much work as you can once you’ve paid it.

Sometimes we may take advantage of a setup cost with our work without doing it intentionally. If we have a stack of work that requires a particular computer program to complete, we may choose to do all those tasks at once. In other words, we reorder tasks to batch them appropriately. In a study of radiologists who review medical images (Ibanez et al., 2017), researchers learned that the specialists often reorder the tasks they are assigned and deviate from a first in/first out order. And they’re allowed to reorder their work if it makes sense to do so. This particular study found an interesting consequence, however. Sometimes, radiologists lost time looking through the images assigned to them while they decided the sequence in which to review them.


Ibanez, M. R., Clark, J. R., Huckman, R. S., & Staats, B. R. (2017). Discretionary task ordering: queue management in radiological services. Working paper. Retrieved Aug. 7, 2017 from

Zijlstra, F. R., Roe, R. A., Leonora, A. B., & Krediet, I. (1999). Temporal factors in mental work: Effects of interrupted activities. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72, 163–185.

Image by Mark Ittleman, CC.


3 thoughts on “There’s More Than One Way to View Setup Costs

  1. Do you have a citation for the radiologist study? I’m a physician and I get dozens (if not hundreds) of tasks daily to complete on our electronic medical record. I naturally try to batch like tasks, partly because that’s how the system sorts it. But I wonder if this is the best way to handle things. If you are familiar with Lean, then you may know that Lean experts recommend against batching (although I’m not sure the batching you’re referring to is necessarily the same as what Lean experts comparing to single-piece workflow). In any case, your blog is great and I look forward to more from you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s