Want to Be More Productive? Stay Extra Busy

iStock / iStock

Paradoxically, the key to getting more stuff done may be having more on your plate. While everyone misses a deadline now and then, a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that busy people are more likely to recover and get that task done after the deadline has passed, rather than simply abandoning it altogether. 

When you miss a deadline, whether it's a self-imposed one or one given to you by a manager, you tend to feel bad about it. And because you’ve already failed, your motivation to complete that project is low. But researchers from Columbia University and three other institutions hypothesize that busy people tend to perceive that they are using their time effectively, which mitigates the sense of failure people have when they miss a task deadline.” In other words, busy people, self-satisfied bunch that they are, don't feel quite as bad about missing deadlines. They spent that time doing something else productive, after all. 

In five different studies, the researchers tested whether busy people were more likely to make up missed deadlines after the fact. In the initial three studies, they asked participants to think of a time they had failed to do a planned task the week before, then asked how busy they were that week, and how motivated they were to complete it now. One version had an observational twist: Participants answered the same questions, but a week later, they came back to the lab to report whether they had ever followed up on their missed deadline.  

Because those studies relied on self-reporting in the lab, the researchers also created a situation where they could control the task at hand. They recruited students to come into the lab to take unrelated tests, then told them they could get $5 by completing another survey online later. They would get an additional $1 if they completed the task within two days. The researchers asked the students when they planned to complete the survey, with almost everyone saying they would complete it within the two-day span. Only 65 of the 89 people who pledged to complete the survey within two days did so successfully. The researchers found that of those who failed to complete the survey when they said they would, those who had busier schedules were quicker to follow up and complete the task than their more chill peers. 

These results were once again borne out by a year-and-a-half long study of more than 28,800 people using an unnamed to-do list app. People who had a lot of things on their to-do lists were more likely to push back their deadlines, but then quicker to ultimately check off those missed tasks than people with fewer deadlines overall. 

Thus, the researchers conclude that there must be something about staying busy that helps keep people motivated, even though they’re short on time. It could be all about productivity: People love being productive (see: every list of productivity tips ever, the rash of productivity-inducing apps, etc.), and they feel good about themselves when they are.

If you can rationalize that you only missed your deadline because you were being so gosh darn productive doing something else, you don’t feel so bad about failing to meet your goal. Therefore, if you want to be more productive at all your tasks, start doing even more things. You’ll get used to blowing past your deadlines, and you’ll return to those tasks quicker than you would otherwise.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]