Is time pressure the key to increase productivity at work?
By Shyamal ParikhAug 6, 2018
Much of our life is devoted to getting things done. Whether it is getting more customers, consulting on a project or getting your son to the hockey tournament. Unless there’s a fixed deadline some things just aren’t going to be done. Moreover, people tend to procrastinate in case the deadlines are far away. I am sure you would remember college assignments. We would delay them as much as possible and attempt to complete them at the very last moment.
This is where, self-imposed deadline can really boost your productivity. If you have a project due on Saturday and you know it will take all of your time you will automatically decline extra commitments. More so if the deadline is preponed to Friday. Infact, you would immediately start working and avoid distractions.
At workplace a manager’s role become even more critical. Given a task what deadline should he set? Should he give ample time for a task or should he set a deadline such that it’s not enough to complete the given task?
According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, deadlines set near the present encourage people to get started on their work, while deadlines further down the track lead to procrastination. Time pressure motivates people to seek closure more quickly, constrains the choice of possible decision strategies (Beach & Mitchell, 1978). C. Northcote Parkinson (1957), states
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If allotted ten minutes to do an assignment, people will take ten minutes to complete it. If allotted thirty minutes, people will take thirty minutes to complete it, making the rate of work (i.e., productivity) inversely proportional to the time available.
In other words, Parkinson’s law suggests that people try to maximize performance by taking the full time allotted to them even though doing so will hinder their productivity. Parkinson's Law predicts that more time will be spent on a task when more time is available.
This prediction is supported by a great variety of research. Aronson and Gerard in 1996 allowed their participants either 5 or 15 minutes to prepare a speech on a given topic. Not surprisingly, those given more time took longer to prepare their speeches. In addition, those given 15 minutes on the first trial took longer to prepare another speech when told they could take as long as they needed.
So if the productivity is the output generated per unit input. Input being a worker’s effort by time, productivity decreases with more time allocated to a given task.
On the other hand a lot of research states the contrary. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile states
We found that on days of the most extreme time pressure, the professionals in our study were 45 percent less likely to come up with a new idea or solve a complex problem. Even worse, there’s a kind of “pressure hangover,” with lower creativity persisting for two days or more. The fact is, when you work under the gun, creativity is usually the first casualty.
Although occasional time pressure for short periods can be exhilarating, using extreme time-pressure to stimulate positive inner work life, for weeks on end or even in the short run, is playing with fire. Best results are produced under low to moderate time pressure.
In the end, does it finally come down to art of knowing the best deadline for the task? Well Steve Jobs certainly had this gift. We know how he would give out insane deadlines and yet the team would go on to deliver some of the best innovations in the tech field.
So, is there a way for managers to improve their art of fixing deadlines? Well there is one and that’s learnings from past experience, though one would have to be good at analyzing signals. When doing repetitive processes or projects it’s best to have a baseline and to see how the team reacts to the deadlines. From this experience, tweak the next project’s deadline and so on. After a few times you would have empirically established the best deadlines.
Try out a tool like SmartTask to track and analyze your processes.
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