But what might this look like in practice? Here are five ideas to consider, each based on research from the Kellogg faculty.
Tackle the hard stuff first
When you have a lot on your plate, it can be tempting to check off some of the easier items on your to-do list first. And then, maybe, just a few more easy ones.
“You feel like you’re making more progress,” she says Mariam Kouhakiwhose research found that people gravitate toward simpler tasks when struggling with heavy workloads.
She and her colleagues found, for example, that when ER doctors were given a choice of which patients to treat, they were more likely to choose an easier patient when they already had multiple patients under their care.
However, the strategy does not pay off in the long run. Over a six-year period, doctors who had dealt with more difficult cases learned to become more efficient than those dealing with an easier caseload. “Doctors who take on difficult patients are the ones who learn over time and create more value for the hospital,” Kouhaki says.
Because avoiding difficult tasks indefinitely cuts off opportunities to improve one’s skills, Kouhaki suggests breaking more difficult projects into bite-sized pieces. That way, you still get the satisfaction of checking items off your to-do list—but also the growth of tackling the tougher stuff.
Plan around tiredness at the end of the day
Food safety inspectors use a rigorous process to detect health violations in restaurants, schools, hospital cafeterias and other places where food is delivered. However, inspectors are only human and the quality of their work can vary somewhat.
ESPECIALLY, Maria Ibanez and a colleague found that inspections done later in the day result in fewer violations. Each additional hour that an inspector conducts inspections during the day results in 3.7 percent fewer reports per inspection that day, likely due to fatigue. Additionally, if inspectors start an inspection at a time that would mean they wouldn’t finish before their normal cut-off time, they complete the inspection 4 percent faster than usual — and record 5 percent fewer violations. The researchers also found that the order in which the inspections were carried out could also affect their quality. For example, after an inspection yielded a particularly high number of violations, inspectors were more likely to find additional violations at the next link as well.
The takeaway here is clear: it’s worth asking (and perhaps measuring) whether certain task sequences or times of day change the quality of your work. “This gives us an opportunity to improve performance by being smarter about scheduling,” says Ibanez.
So the quality of work can be affected by planning — but what about efficiency?
The courts, which deal with cases dealing with dismissals and pensions, are notoriously slow and many hearings are required to resolve a case. So judges usually put each new hearing at the end of the queue, finding the first open slot on the calendar and filling it. They also wait until the current hearing is over to schedule new ones.
But Persico, Bray and their colleagues worked with six appellate labor court judges in Rome to implement a new scheduling method over a three-year period. Specifically, they scheduled hearings in advance and clustered them close together. This allowed a case to move quickly through the system once it reached its first hearing because it was not affected by what happened to other cases.
This new method reduced the time it took to resolve a case by 140 days, or 19 percent, compared to judges who used the traditional method.
While this exact approach to juggling tasks may not translate to other activities—or even to other court hearings—the general idea is that many workers could probably become more efficient by focusing on completing a few tasks instead of simply pushing many. .
“All kinds of workers schedule their workflow inefficiently, in the sense that they tend to jump from one task to another too often,” Persico said. “They spread themselves thin and then achieve less than they would if they worked on something to completion.”
Cooperation has a cost
Cooperation is often described as unilaterally good — but it’s important to remember that there are costs associated with it.
Jan Van Mieghem and Itai Gurvich, both professors of operations management, showed in a theoretical paper that when skilled workers engage in simultaneous collaboration—when they are all needed to perform a single task—the performance of the entire system can suffer. This need to synchronize while coordinating can lead to a loss of productivity and the workflow can be slowed down even more than would be predicted by the usual bottlenecks in the system.
These costs also appear in real situations. A study conducted by Van Mieghem, Gurvich, and then-doctoral student Lu Wang found that the productivity of one type of doctor, known as a “hospitalist,” dropped dramatically when that doctor was asked to work with specialists. The collaboration had an immediate effect by adding the time required to communicate with the specialist. But it also had a “crowding” effect that ended up causing the nurse to spend an extra 20 percent of the time on the patient’s medical chart.
25 percent of this spillover came from the increased time it took to document the conclusions of a valuable consultation. But forty-five percent came from task sequencing or the effect of interruptions from associates that require the nurse to change their workflow—moving from one chart to another, say.
“Being busy can increase downtime,” says Van Mieghem. “At the end of the day, being busy may not equate to being productive.”
Communication can be just as important as planning
What if you could keep your schedule and productivity levels pretty much the same — but magically make everyone happier with your performance?
It sounds too good to be true. But it turns out that rethinking how (and how often) you keep your customers updated on your progress can change how they perceive your effort. This is called “functional transparency”—the idea is that “if you can see how hard I’m working, then you’ll appreciate it more,” says Bray. Additionally, customers may appreciate feeling in the loop.
However, transparency can have a downside. After all, if you show customers every step, they may also notice long delays between progress reports.
So how can you maximize the benefit of this transparency while minimizing dirty laundry? Bray analyzed a massive data set of package delivery records from the e-commerce giant Alibaba in China and found that the timing of updates matters.
When customers received frequent status updates on their online orders toward the end of delivery, they tended to rate the service highly. But if the activity was concentrated near the beginning and followed by inactivity, the scores tended to be lower – even if the overall delivery time was the same. He suspects this pattern arose because customers pay more attention to what happens late in the process. “Typically, people remember the end of the experience,” says Bray.
The result; Consider stepping up your communication during the final leg of a project – and reap the rewards.