Why the “Task Completion Bias” Could Give You the Illusion of Productive Practice, but Make You Less Productive in the Long-Term

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You know how people say you should never go to the grocery store when you’re hungry? I know this is probably good advice, but when I’m hungry is like my favorite time to go!

Admittedly, that’s when I end up with all sorts of stuff in my basket that wasn’t on my shopping list. Most of which don’t serve my long-term health and fitness goals…

Umm…and what does this have to do with anything?

Well, I wish I could say that I spent most of my life practicing in an organized, thoughtful, and strategic way.

But the truth is that it looked a lot more like going to the grocery store hungry.

Like, rather than beginning each practice session with a clear, specific list of problems to address (a.k.a. shopping list), I went in with a pretty general and vague goal of “stay in the practice room until things don’t suck so bad” (a.k.a. put yummy things in tummy until full). Where I’d basically start playing (a.k.a. wandering around the store) and spontaneously auto-generate this ad-hoc list of things to work on (a.k.a. put food I’m craving in basket) with no system for tracking my progress or solutions.

Obviously, this is not an efficient strategy for making the most of your time. And whether you want to be at your best in an audition, run a marathon, or make epic dorm-style ramen , it helps to have a plan.

And what might that entail?

Well, a few years back, Met percussionist Rob Knopper wrote about his strategy for making practice maximally efficient and effective. Which you should totally read after finishing this post (it’s linked at the bottom), but for now, the TLDR version1 is that in the same way that it helps to have a detailed shopping list and recipe if you want to make non-sucky lasagna , practicing becomes much more effective when you have an organized list of well-defined problems to find solutions for.

Of course, unlike the sandwich of justice , which has only so many ingredients, there are a near-infinite number of things you could work on in your next practice session. There are intonation issues to solve, rhythm issues to troubleshoot, fingerings, bowings, and stickings to sort out, sound production problems, coordination challenges, and more. And there’s only so much time before your lesson or next performance. Ack!

So what’s the most effective way to work through your list? Should you start with the easiest, quickest issues? Or with the really thorny, complicated, difficult ones?

An ER study

To answer just this sort of question, a multi-university research team (KC, Staats, Kouchaki, & Gino, 2017) analyzed two years of treatment records in a hospital emergency department to see what patterns there might be in how doctors selected patients when things got busy, and whether this had any impact on overall productivity.

Basically, when a patient arrived at the ER, they would first see a triage nurse who would do a basic evaluation to find out what was going on, determine the severity of the problem, and create an electronic record and file for that patient. These electronic records would then be entered into a queue, which the ER doctors monitored and used to select new patients from, as they evaluated, diagnosed, treated, and discharged each patient, while managing and balancing a caseload of other individuals at various stages of that process.

Because the doctors had the autonomy to select their own patients, and the electronic records included the times patients were picked up and discharged by each doctor, it was possible to see how many patients doctors were treating at any given time, and calculate each doctor’s productivity in a couple different ways.

So what did they find?

A task completion bias

Well, overall, the researchers found that as the ER physicians got busier and had more patients on their caseload, they were indeed more likely to pick up easier patients than difficult ones.

Which makes sense, right? Because when you have a million things to do, and you want to get through as many things on your plate as possible, it’s tempting to lean towards the items on your list that can be completed more quickly and easily than those which take more time and mental effort. The authors called this a “task completion bias.”

Short-term consequences

On the plus side, this bias did lead to a short-term boost in productivity. Meaning, up to a point, front-loading easy cases did seem to help doctors process patients more quickly. But the key word here is short-term.

Long-term consequences

Because in the long-term, the physicians who tended to front-load easier cases had a lower processing rate. Meaning, it took them longer to treat their patients, than the doctors who took on a more balanced mix of easy and difficult patients.

Why? Well, I’m not sure if this is the reason, but I wonder if there may have been a little of the so-called “Parkinson’s Law” at play here – i.e. where “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

The idea being, if you have too much time, or not enough time pressure, you can end up being less efficient and devoting more time to a task than is optimal. Like, if it’s a couple hours before your lesson and you have ten pages worth of music to work on, you’ll find a way to make the most of the time you have and get through as much of the music as you can. 

But if you have only two pages of music to work on, you could easily spend that time working on the two pages, but probably not in the most efficient way, and also at the expense of other things that may be a more valuable use of your time.

Another long-term consequence

In addition, the researchers found that the doctors who were prone to picking easier cases generated less revenue for the hospital too2. Essentially, if I’m understanding correctly, the more difficult cases were often associated with more income for the hospital, so by taking on fewer of these patients, the task completion-biased doctors spent a greater proportion of time on lower revenue-generating cases than the more efficient doctors.

The practice room equivalent to this might be like solving a lot of little minor issues, but neglecting to address the bigger problems that would actually make a more significant impact on the level of your playing.

Indeed, the authors note that what they observed in the ER data is “similar to the general idea of exploration and exploitation. By selecting the easier task (exploitation) an individual gets work done quicker – and likely feels good doing it. However, by choosing the harder task (exploration) one creates an opportunity to learn. Although always selecting the harder task may be suboptimal, if one continually chooses the exploitation path then longer term performance suffers.”

What causes this bias?

And what causes this bias towards choosing easier tasks? Well, a follow-up study found that a big part of it seems to be the “hey-look-at-me-being-so-productive!” mini-high we get when we check something off our to-do list. 

This is a pretty terrific feeling, so it can be tempting to gravitate toward the lowest hanging fruit and easiest, quickest tasks – especially when we feel like we are pressed for time.

Take action

So what can we do to avoid the task completion bias and be maximally productive in the long-term?

Well, a few things.

1. Have a list

I think it starts by having a list of clearly defined problems, as Rob explains here: Five simple ways to retain your work in the practice room

2. Triage the problems

Having a “shopping list” like this already puts you way ahead of the game. But the results of this study make me wonder if it might also be helpful to “triage” your list of problems too. To at least flag the difficult and easy issues, so you can make sure you’re not taking on a disproportionate number of the easy ones, but addressing the difficult problems too.

3. Match up problems with available energy

It might also help to save easy problems for when you’re tired, and your brain doesn’t want to think so hard. And use your high-energy times during the day to problem-solve the more challenging issues.

4. Divide and conquer

And if you’re kind of addicted to that good feeling of checking off tasks, the researchers suggest breaking complex tasks into smaller pieces. Like, maybe it’s ok if you don’t solve the fingering problem completely, but simply come up with two potential fingerings to try later. Or maybe you get the first few chords in a passage in tune, but leave the remaining few for another time.


References

KC, D. S., Staats, B. R., Kouchaki, M., & Gino, F. (2017). Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Long-Term Performance. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Footnotes

  1. i.e. Too Long, Didn’t Read
  2. Based on their generating lower “RVU’s”.

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Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

8 Responses

  1. I have a few questions about the doctors in this study. First off, how were they incentivised by their hospitals? Did they for example have a quota of patients to see, or else they get sacked? We’re they paid by the patient, or maybe as a percentage of revenue generated? Or were they paid by the hour?

    I would also be curious to know how they were doing for food and sleep. People who are short of sleep tend to choose easier tasks, “looking busy” while slacking off on energy output. Hospital residency program are infamous for making their young doctors work 30-hr shifts and such. And as for food, if it’s been a while since their last meal, these doctors might have been tending towards patients that they couldn’t mess up too bad if they were starting to get tunnel visioned. One of the great fears for any doctor is a malpractice lawsuit, which could end their career. But if you’re only seeing patients with mild coughs, it’s harder to get on the wrong side of a lawsuit. Not all doctors in a hospital work the same hours with the same snacking habits (at least I assume).

    Finally, I wonder if the cause and effect are flipped. You imply that by selecting a mix of difficult and easy cases, the doctors might become more productive. But what if the doctors selecting the mix of difficulties were the better, more skilled doctors? Isn’t it possible that the ones selecting easier patients were already prone to be slower and less skilled? So if you gave them more difficult cases, they might slow down to a snail’s pace and produce even less revenue. It could be like asking a youth symphony violinist to please learn the Tchaikovsky concerto in full by the end of the month. Hilary Hahn might be up to the task. But it wouldn’t be a fair contest, because she’s already the more skilled violinist.

    Your advice is good, as always. But the study sounds as though it has some questions it hasn’t addressed. I haven’t gone and looked up the original paper, though. Do you have any insights?

    Love the blog!
    Eric

    1. Hi Eric,

      Great questions and points! I don’t have all the answers, but you might enjoy reading the summary here, or full working paper here.

      I’m not sure about incentives, but I think the two-years of data and 90k patient records probably helps even out some of the food/sleep issues, though there may still be some systematic differences between doctors on an individual level.

      And I’d have to look again, but I don’t think physician experience was a variable, though it’d certainly be an interesting one.

      1. One of the reasons why they picked an emergency room is that under federal law EMTALA -https://www.cms.gov/regulations-and-guidance/legislation/emtala/), ERs have to examine and treat everyone who comes through. The fines and punishments are severe if a hospital or doctor does not follow the guidelines.
        Second, hospitals compete for this work, especially since the ACA insures (pun intended) more payment and as a result they often advertise wait times which the ER staff are tasked with achieving. What takes time is what happens once you are in the system. Some patients require a lot of evaluation before treatment and many require followup which may take hours to arrange. Others of equal or more severity may take less time as the evaluation is not as lengthy and treatment more obvious.
        The paper mentioned that they evaluated 95,0000 cases over two years and used criteria to evaluate if a case was “easy” or “difficult” which was most likely based on complexity, not severity. They demonstrated their hypothesis that by taking only the easy cases – ER docs try to keep a similar load to other ER docs – that overall productivity as measured by their standards and their formula suffered because of the individual case selections of the doctors.
        The number of cases tells me that the hospital that they used had a moderate ER case load. My son, who is an ER doctor and taught ER medicine at the University of Rochester, told me that 40,000 cases a year is a minimum needed in order to keep up the skills needed to run an efficient ER. Assuming that the study looked at all the cases, that hospital meets the minimum.
        The study was done to test the hypotheses that easier tasks are more attractive and that only doing the easier tasks slow overall productivity because the entire task is usually complex and requires the development of sophisticated methods to achieve efficiently. Emergency rooms have to take on all comers but if their system is not up to the task because the main actors are not invested in treating the harder cases in a manner that allows the system to improve itself (via more intense or efficient evaluation and treatment of complex cases) then the overall productivity falters. This study did not look at individual doctors as much as how their performance affected the entire system.
        The take-away for musicians is that those harder tasks need to be automated as much as the easier ones as they offer solutions to how a musician can improve when things get more complex. Hence the advice that you should mix up practice tasks, which has been around a long time, is verified by this study. Now we just have to see if they can duplicate it.

  2. The food and sleep issues are interesting, but wouldn’t alter the application to practice. Most of us tend at times to do other ‘life’ activities that get in the way of practice. Which leaves us practicing late at night, or when exhausted, or trying to scrunch in some time before dinner etc. If we knew (and I haven’t read the source article yet so not sure if we do) for example, that when tired or hungry is when we go for the low hanging, easy, fruit that doesn’t help our playing overall as much as we think it does that could help us avoid doing exactly that. Being aware of the problem would help us not succumb to the sense of achievment that we get.
    Likewise, it would be intersting to know about the doctors’ incentives, but each of the possible ways mentioned do relate to practice. We have a quota of ‘things’ we need to work on or our playing will suffer greatly (e. g. our tone will be ‘sacked’) and we mostly budget our practicing in hourly rates i.e. “I will spend 3 hours in the practice room today”. So it would be nice to know which system tends to make us work inthe less productive completion-bias way, but whichever it is it is still probably something that applies to practice time.
    As always, helpful article Noa, and literally immediately applicable since I just changed my mind abotu how today’s -ractice session will go!
    Thanks.
    Ellie

    1. I feel like I stumbled across a study once upon a time that indicated we tend to do less mindful, deliberate practice, or that we do tend to gravitate towards less complex problems when we’re tired – but I can’t find it at the moment. Maybe I’m misremembering? Will keep looking…

      1. I came across that research in Matt Walker’s book “Why We Sleep”. It’s pages 299-300 in the 2017 hard cover edition that I have.

        I’m a little fuzzy on which papers have the results we’re talking about, but here are three that he mentions around then. I think the last one is more about slacking off in a group-work setting:

        M. Engle-Friedman and S. Riela, “Self-imposed sleep loss, sleepiness, effort and performance,” Sleep and Hypnosis 6, no. 4 (2004): 155-62

        M. Engle-Friedman, S. Riela, R. Golan, et al., “The effect of sleep loss on next day effort,” Journal of Sleep Research 12, no. 2 (2003): 113-24.

        C.Y. Hoeksema-van Orden, A. W. Gaillard, and B.P. Buunk, “Social loafing under fatigue,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no. 5 (1998): 1179-90.

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