It feels good to cross things off of your to-do list—especially when you’ve got a heavy workload. Taking care of quick tasks, such as answering email or sending invoices, at the beginning of the day can give you a sense of accomplishment. But tackling the easy stuff first might actually harm your productivity in the long run, according to a new study.
“In the short-term, the person could actually feel satisfied and less anxious,” says Maryam Kouchaki, associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “But avoiding hard tasks indefinitely also cuts off opportunities to learn and improve one’s skills.
The idea for the study came after Kouchaki had a conversation with Bradley Staats of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School about their own tendencies to delay hard tasks, such as writing a paper, in favor of easy ones, such as prepping for a routine class.
“We were curious if this was something the average person was doing and, more importantly, what were the short- and long-term effects,” she says.
Easy task bias
Kouchaki, Staats, and Gino collaborated with Diwas KC at Emory University to study data that had been collected about emergency room doctors’ case choices. While factors such as specialties, patient waiting time, and bandwidth were considered, the researchers discovered that doctors were more likely to choose easier patients during times of higher workloads. In fact, each additional patient under their care was linked to an 8% higher chance of selecting a lower-acuity case.
To confirm the results in another setting, the researchers conducted an experiment, giving participants a sideways picture of a book page to read, asking them to type as much of the text as possible in three minutes. Half the participants, dubbed the “high-workload group,” were also asked to simultaneously listen to a song and count the number of times that certain words were used.
After the task was complete, the participants reported their sense of progress, fatigue, and stress level. Then they were asked to choose a second task, one of which was easy while the other was somewhat difficult. Seventy-six percent of the high-workload group picked the easy second task, compared to 64% of the low-workload group.
Why we like easy tasks
Finishing tasks provides a sense of progress and makes us feel good. “We all have limited time and attention,” says Kouchaki. “In any moment, if you have a choice of doing an easy or difficult task, most of us tend to pick the easy task. Easier tasks are often quicker to complete, and they are more likely to be chosen first when people are busier. We call this ‘task completion preference.'”
The problem is that when you create a habit of choosing easier tasks over hard, you can impact your long-term productivity.
“This preference for easy tasks pays off in the short-term with high performance; the department is more likely to finish more tasks,” says Kouchaki. “But in the long run, the most learning happens through difficult tasks. When you avoid them, you escape those benefits.”
What to do instead
While you might think that it’s best to fill your day with harder tasks, a better strategy is doing a combination of both.
“Saying that we should always do the difficult task first can be extreme,” says Kouchaki. “We don’t have data, but my intuition is if people start with a difficult task and try to stick with it until they finish it, they could become demotivated without a sense of progress and super fatigued. Having a combination of easy and difficult is a more effective strategy. You get sense of completion but at the same time mindful focus on difficult tasks as well.”
You can also tackle complex projects by breaking them down into smaller, simpler milestones. This can provide the reward you feel from completing an easy task, while staying on track to address and learn from challenges.
Difficult tasks often provide more learning opportunities, but Kouchaki points out that it doesn’t mean that easy tasks aren’t important. “What’s more important is the psychological sense of completion and that it matters,” she says. “Ultimately, the goal should be to be aware and be more intentional and mindful of what you do.”