March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

We are all guilty of a bit of work procrastination, but have you ever given this a second thought?

Here’s how the story goes: you have a work meeting in an hour and ten things to do before the end of the day, but how much work can you fit in before your next meeting? Well, according to new research, more than we think. Turns out, in the hour prior to an appointment, workers ‘tax’ their time which decreases their productivity.

We are all guilty of a bit of work procrastination, but have you ever given this a second thought? Selin Malkoc, Professor of Marketing at Ohio State University, has conducted an intriguing new study which exposes how we behave in response to an upcoming task. ‘This project started from our observations of our own behaviour. It was Gabbie, an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Rutgers University, who noticed how she chooses different tasks when she has upcoming plans’.

In a study of 198 people, participants were asked to share their calendars, indicating any upcoming appointments. They were offered the opportunity to take part in either a 30-minute study paying $2.50 or a 45-minute study paying $5.00. Intriguingly, even with a monetary incentive and plenty of time to complete the longer study, if the survey was placed before an appointment, participants were far less likely to choose the 45-minute option.

What could this mean for how businesses operate?

‘When you have to stop doing work to take 15 minutes to 2 hours to sit in a room and discuss other topics, you lose time and train of thought. The disturbance doesn’t just last the time of the meeting, it also takes some time to get back into the groove of what you were working on before the meeting.’ says Matthew Elson, Analyst of Distributed Revenue Accounting at National Grid, sharing the sentiment with Selin that meetings can have a negative effect on work productivity.

‘Employers need to be mindful of how their employee’s days are structured. It might not be a bad idea to have “meeting days” with intermittent breaks and non-meeting days, where employees can buckle down and get things done.’ says Selin.

Whether this format could be translated into the work place is another question, ‘Sometimes you need a last minute meeting. Personally, I like to space out meetings as having them back to back is tiring.’ says Jonathan Cohen, Director of US Treasury Planning and Strategy at National Grid.

But could this reduced ability to get things done before a meeting really be bad-news for businesses or could it instead perhaps mean we focus on getting fewer things done but to a higher quality?

‘At times, we actually achieve more during what we perceive to be limited time. Think about the last hour on Friday. Somehow, that feels like the most productive hour of the week… Having said that, we find no evidence for increased quality.’ says Selin.

Not everyone feels losing out on this quality is a bad thing, ‘If a critical piece of work is being worked on and takes 90 minutes, employees could be motivated to complete the task in an hour, lowering the quality of work. We have to be conscious of deadlines that exist and sometimes work needs to be ‘rushed’.’ says Jonathan.

Taxing time beyond the workplace:

Time taxation doesn’t stop at work, we’re also guilty of doing it in the comfort of our own home. In another study Selin conducted, participants were asked to either imagine a friend was coming over

to their home in an hour, with everything ready and in order, or they were told they had no plans for the rest of the evening. Participants were then asked how much subjective time, i.e. how much time they felt they had, in the next hour to spend reading. Those who were told they had no plans, stated they had 50 minutes, allowing time for a toilet break. However, those who were told they had a friend coming over had an extra 10 minutes vanish from their hour, stating they only had 40 minutes to read. That’s even though the cheese board was done, the crackers were on the table and the red wine was chilling in the fridge.

Some intriguing insights into our productivity both at work and in the comfort of our own home. Perhaps we all need to reconsider how much we’re able to do in an hour, and try to push ourselves to accomplish a little more in the period before a task. I better finish now; I’ve got a meeting in 10 minutes!

Rachel Kahn is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Procrastination, Vic / Wikimedia Commons.