Task selection and workload: A focus on completing easy tasks hurts performance

S. K.C. Diwas, Bradley R. Staats, Maryam Kouchaki, Francesca Gino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


How individuals manage, organize, and complete their tasks is central to operations management. Recent research in operations focuses on how under conditions of increasing workload individuals can decrease their service time, up to a point, to complete work more quickly. As the number of tasks increases, however, workers may also manage their workload by a different process-task selection. Drawing on research on workload, individual discretion, and behavioral decision making, we theorize and then test that under conditions of increased workload, individuals may choose to complete easier tasks to manage their load. We label this behavior task completion preference (TCP). Using six years of data from a hospital emergency department, we find that physicians engage in TCP, with implications for their performance. Specifically, TCP helps physicians manage variance in service times; however, although it initially appears to improve shift-level throughput volume, after adjusting for the complexity of the work completed, TCP is related to worse throughput. Moreover, we find that engaging in easier tasks compared with hard ones is related to lower learning in service times. We then turn to the laboratory to replicate conceptually the short-term task selection effect under increased workload and show that it occurs because of both fatigue and the sense of progress individuals get from task completion. These findings provide another mechanism for the workload-speedup effect from the literature. We also discuss implications for both the research and the practice of operations in building systems to help people succeed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4397-4416
Number of pages20
JournalManagement Science
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • Decision making
  • Discretion
  • Healthcare
  • Knowledge work
  • Workload

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Strategy and Management
  • Management Science and Operations Research


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