Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Performance

40 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2017 Last revised: 1 Sep 2019

See all articles by Diwas Singh KC

Diwas Singh KC

Emory University - Goizueta Business School

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

Maryam Kouchaki

Northwestern Kellogg School of Management

Francesca Gino

Harvard Business School

Date Written: May 10, 2019

Abstract

How individuals manage, organize, and complete their tasks is central to operations management. Recent research in operations focuses on how under conditions of increasing workload individuals can decrease their service time, up to a point, in order to complete work more quickly. As the number of tasks increases, however, workers may also manage their workload by a different process – task selection. Drawing on research on workload, individual discretion, and behavioral decision making we theorize and then test that under conditions of increased workload individuals may choose to complete easier tasks in order to manage their load. We label this behavior task completion preference (TCP). Using six years of data from a hospital emergency department we find that physicians engage in TCP, with implications for their performance. Specifically, TCP helps physicians manage variance in service times, however, although it initially appears to improve shift-level throughput volume, after adjusting for the complexity of the work completed, TCP is related to worse throughput. Moreover, we find that engaging in easier tasks, as compared to hard ones is related to lower learning in service times. We then turn to the lab to replicate conceptually the short-term task selection effect under increased workload and show that it occurs due to both fatigue and the sense of progress individuals get from task completion. These findings provide another mechanism for the workload-speedup effect from the literature. We also discuss implications for both research and the practice of operations in building systems to help people succeed.

Keywords: Healthcare, Knowledge Work, Decision Making, Discretion, Workload

Suggested Citation

KC, Diwas Singh and Staats, Bradley R. and Kouchaki, Maryam and Gino, Francesca, Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Performance (May 10, 2019). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 17-112; Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise Research Paper No. 18-6. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2992588 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2992588

Diwas Singh KC

Emory University - Goizueta Business School ( email )

1300 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322-2722
United States

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School ( email )

McColl Building, CB#3490
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
United States

Maryam Kouchaki

Northwestern Kellogg School of Management ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Francesca Gino (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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