NPR logo To Get More Work Done, Finish Old Tasks Before You Start New Ones

To Get More Work Done, Finish Old Tasks Before You Start New Ones

Not maximizing efficiency. Reza Vaziri/Flickr hide caption

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Reza Vaziri/Flickr

Here's some grandmotherly advice, courtesy of the latest economic research:

If you try and do a million things at once, you won't finish anything. Better to finish what you've started, then go on to the next thing.

That's the finding in a new study of 21 judges in Milan who handled thousands of cases filed over the course of five years. The judges all had the roughly same workload assigned to them, and they all dealt with similar cases relating to labor disputes.

They find that ...

judges who keep fewer trials active and wait to close the open ones before starting new ones, dispose more rapidly of a larger number of cases per unit of time. In this way, their backlog remains low even though they receive the same workload as other judges who juggle more trials at any given time.

Of course, judges vary in lots of ways. The authors parse some of the variables that come to mind, and still say juggling matters:

Our results suggest that individual speed of job completion cannot be explained solely in terms of effort, ability and experience. Individual work scheduling (how much juggling is done) is a crucial input that cannot be omitted from the production function of individual workers.