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Time Keeps On Ticking Ticking Ticking… Into the Workplace

Laurel Newman
Behavioral Scientist

Editor’s Note: They say “Time is money.” They’re wrong. You can save money. You can borrow money. If you’re running out of money, your bank will certainly let you know.

Time? Time is a jerk. You can’t save it, you can’t borrow it, you don’t know when it’s going to run out, and you certainly don’t get any refunds for time not well spent.

Too bad: We’re stuck with time. There’s no hippy commune where we can just barter for minutes and avoid ever dealing with time. For most of us, that’s bad news, because we’re terrible at time. Look at me: I am horrible at time management. I’ve learned not to weep each day about how little I’ve done, but I still come close. Somehow, I’ve cranked out whatever work product I have – here and elsewhere – but it’s taken decades to do what others would’ve accomplished sooner. (Don’t tell.)

In other words, even though I’ve written a lot about money, it’s actually money’s bastard cousin time that obsesses me most. How can I handle time better? How can we all? This research helps.

 

A friend of mine once said, “People have an idea of what their values are based on what they want them to be. But if you really want to know what someone’s priorities are, open up their calendar and see how they’re spending their time.” These words stuck with me, and I often return to them when I need a reminder to devote more of life’s most precious resource (time) to the people and causes that mean the most to me.

The same situation occurs in our workplaces. Fortunately, most workers in today’s knowledge economy have at least some autonomy over their schedules. A unifying feature of human behavior, however, is that people tend to take the path of least resistance. At work, our desire to be a good team player causes us to default to “yes” when someone needs something from us. Each single request seems worth doing. But when you put them together, there’s often little time left over for us to do our actual work.

Raise your hand if you have ever been in a meeting where someone asked you why something is not done yet, and the answer (at least in your head) is, “because we keep meeting to talk about it! I can’t actually do the work!” Moreover, our limited cognitive resources in times of stress cause us to default to prioritizing tasks that are urgent over tasks that are important. So how can we prevent our most important work from being pushed to the side?

 

How can we prevent our most important work from being pushed to the side?

This is the question that one of my colleagues posed several months ago. His team was having trouble meeting deadlines that required a steady stream of independent work because they felt pressure to reply in real time to every client request. Several psychological theories have at their core the assumption that in order for someone to do something (e.g., think critically, complete a behavior), they must have the motivation, the time and the ability to do it.

Our employees were motivated. They wanted to get the work done. So communicating to them on how critical the work is to the business would probably only frustrate them. They were able as well; they’re competent, capable people. They didn’t need any extra training or equipment to get the job done. What they did not have was time. In their client-facing roles, they believed their first priority should be monitoring client needs, and because clients always have needs, they were deprived consistent blocks of time to do their heads-down work. The article below tells the story of how we worked with the business to create a zero-cost strategy to direct people’s time and attention to their most important work.

 

They didn’t need any extra training or equipment to get the job done. What they did not have was time.

Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review and was co-authored by Ms. Newman, Charlotte Blank (chief behavioral officer, Maritz), Ashley Whillans (professor, Harvard Business School) and Laura M. Giurge (post-doc, London School of Business).

 

It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday, and you just arrived at work. Your to-do list for the week is long: answering emails, making client calls, attending meetings, researching a client’s needs, writing a proposal, updating a project plan, reading about new developments in your field … the list doesn’t seem to end.

Which tasks should you focus on first?

The approach that many of us too often default to is checking off tasks that are easiest to complete or are due first, regardless of importance – a phenomenon that scholars describe as the “mere urgency” effect.

In 2018, researchers documented this effect across five experiments in which they asked participants to make trade-off decisions between tasks that varied in urgency and importance. Urgent tasks expired faster, whereas important tasks paid more. They found that people favored urgent tasks over important ones — even when these tasks paid less. It seems that we pay more attention to time when we feel like we have less of it. So when we feel busy, we are more likely to favor urgent, unimportant tasks.

This tendency becomes stronger the busier we are. When we have a lot of tasks to do and not enough time to do them (what researchers call “time poverty”), we don’t have the bandwidth to determine the relative importance of each of our tasks. So, we revert to heuristics or cues in our environment, such as task length or task deadline, to decide how to prioritize, and we focus on what we can quickly cross off our list to feel more in control over our busy schedules.

But constantly prioritizing urgent tasks means that important tasks that have no urgent deadline (such as updating your resume or doing creative work) get pushed aside for later and later. Some just never get done. When we fail to do what’s important, often what matters most to us, we feel stressed, overwhelmed, and unmotivated — and firms are less productive.

What can managers do to help employees combat the very natural tendency to put off for tomorrow what isn’t due today? Our latest research suggests a simple solution: have employees set aside time for work that is important but not urgent. We call this proactive time or pro-time.

To test this idea, we conducted a study with a group of 46 full-time employees from Maritz, a U.S. marketing services and customer experience research company (where two of us work [Editor’s note: Maritz is also the parent company of PeopleScience]). We randomly assigned half of the employees to a pro-time condition, where they were instructed to set up a recurring 30-minute weekly planning session on their calendars. During this session, employees were asked to make a list of their most important and urgent work tasks, to block out two hours in their calendars each day for the next 2-3 weeks, and to fill out these “pro-time” calendar blocks with important, but non-urgent, tasks. This way, when employees’ pro-time period began, they were already ready to focus on activities that involved more of a heavy lift.

The other employees were assigned to our control group — they were not asked to engage in the pro-time procedure and continued doing what they normally do at work.

Before the pro-time period began, we asked both groups of employees to respond to a 25-item survey capturing how they felt about their stress, productivity, time management, workload and responsiveness to clients. Six weeks later, when the pro-time period ended, we asked them to complete the same 25 items.

Below is an example of how our employees’ “pro-time” weeks looked on a calendar:

Protime_Calendar

After six weeks of the pro-time procedure, employees in our “pro-time” condition reported being 14% more effective with their time. They also reported being 9% less overwhelmed by workload and 12% more likely to accomplish more, meet important deadlines and get important tasks done faster. By contrast, employees in the control condition reported being 6% less effective with their time, 10% more overwhelmed by workload, and 4% less productive. We also found that the employees who benefitted the most from “pro-time” were those who seemed to be the most pressed for time.

Most relevant for organizations, employees in both groups were equally responsive to clients’ requests. Pro-time did not come at the cost of good customer service. Employees in the pro-time group also felt happier about their work overall. (This is important given that recent research provides causal evidence that happier employees are more productive.) Among those in the pro-time group, 84% recommended that the method be used across their organization.

Additional studies are needed to understand how employees use their time during pro-time periods, how long-lasting these effects are, and whether there are benefits outside work. But overall, our findings suggest that helping employees be intentional and disciplined with their time can increase well-being, happiness, and even productivity.

How to use pro-time effectively

One participant told us, “The main take away for me after these six weeks is to stop multitasking and focus on start-finish-next instead. I also really liked switching off my mobile phone and IM for two hours each day, will definitely continue to do that. The whole concept took about a week to get used to, but it was easy to follow the process after that.”

For pro-time to be effective, it must be distraction-free: no email, no Slack, no text messages. While it might be tempting to check email and answer a 1-minute urgent request from a client, research suggests that this sense of being always on affects our productivity; we need time to stop thinking of one task before we can fully shift our attention to the next. For that reason, employers must ensure that employees are able to turn off all distractions where possible, block the pro-time in their calendar, and be allowed to focus on the tasks they scheduled for each pro-time period.

Employers also need to be mindful that some employees like to schedule their time based on the clock (i.e., clock-time types), while others like to schedule their time based on events (event-time types). The pro-time procedure might work best for clock-time employees who are most productive and energized when their days are scheduled by the hour. In contrast, event-time employees might benefit from having a more flexible period to complete a task fully such as blocking out an entire morning every Monday or an afternoon every Friday.

Managers will want to consider additional questions like, should we block pro-time on employees’ calendars to make the process even easier? Are pro-time periods necessary each workday to see positive results? Is two hours too much or too little? Managers can start simple by surveying their team to gauge interest or, as Maritz did, managers can experiment with the pro-time procedure to see the impact it can have on their employees (and on their clients). We recommend experimenting for at least six weeks so employees get accustomed with the procedure and learn what tasks to schedule and in which days.

More research is needed to understand how the procedure works in different contexts, who benefits most from it, and what are the pro-time best practices. But in the meantime, try blocking time for important non-urgent tasks for yourself and let us know how it goes.

 

Laurel Newman
Behavioral Scientist

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