Don’t Let ‘Completion Bias’ Derail You at Work

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At school or in the workplace, it’s common to be buffeted with a steady stream of different tasks competing for your time and attention. It can be hard to triage, to figure out what needs to be done right this moment and what can wait until tomorrow. And there’s an interesting human cognitive quirk that only complicates things further, write Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats in an interesting article in Harvard Business Review.

Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Staats, a professor at the UNC’s Kenan–Flagler Business School, are currently conducting research on how people figure out how to juggle different tasks at work. One cornerstone of this research is that, as they write, people have a “completion bias” — “human brains are wired to seek completion and the pleasure it brings.” “Our ongoing research (not yet published) has found that checking off items is psychologically rewarding,” they write. “After you complete a task, being able to literally check a box makes you happier than when you are not given a box to check.”

For many people, this sort of list-making is an important part of keeping everything organized. But what’s interesting is that, physical list or no, completion bias may nudge us, unwittingly, toward easy-to-complete tasks, since we relish that reward-feeling.

This, the researchers argue, can backfire in certain settings:

In unpublished research with Emory University’s Diwas KC and Northwestern University’s Maryam Kouchaki, we examined the completion bias of physicians in the emergency department (ED) of a busy hospital, where patients arrive unscheduled. Using data from about 43,000 distinct patient encounters, we found that physicians exhibit a bias toward completing easy tasks when confronted with an increased workload due to an increase in the number of arriving patients.

Easy tasks in the ED correspond with the treatment of “lower-acuity” patients — in other words, those that are less sick. This strategy initially appears beneficial: By focusing on them, a doctor improves her productivity because these patients have shorter lengths of stay. However, there are at least two problems with the approach. First, patients with more severe issues wait longer, which obviously is not a good thing. Second, with each additional easy patient that a doctor treats, she slows down, so there is a risk of the doctor becoming tired and less effective on the job prior to dealing with patients with more severe conditions.

It’s easy to see a similar dynamic working in a less dramatic environment than an emergency room: It feels good to chip away at the smaller tasks nibbling at your brain, but the time you spend doing so is time you’re not spending on bigger, more important projects.

Resisting this, argue Gino and Staats, should be simple. It’s just when you’re frazzled by all you have to do at a given moment, it’s easy to get in the habit of putting out fire after fire in a haphazard, temporarily satisfying way, rather than setting up a system that can help you accomplish your biggest, most important goals more efficiently: “It’s important to know your priorities,” they write. “That may sound obvious but it’s amazing how many people don’t identify their top three to five priorities — or fail to change how they structure their workdays when priorities change … [A]nother tactic is exploiting the completion bias by tackling a couple of mundane tasks at the start of the workday so you can prepare your mind to tackle the more important activities right after.”

I’ll try to keep this in mind as I struggle to respond to the many emails that piled up in my inbox while I was on vacation — all without losing sight of the longer articles I want to write.

Don’t Let ‘Completion Bias’ Derail You at Work