Science of Productivity: How Sequencing of Tasks Affecting Productivity

Science of Productivity Ep 012: How Your Sequencing of Tasks Affects Productivity

November 25, 2020

There are two lines of thought regarding how you should sequence tasks in order to maximize your productivity. One suggests that once you finish one task, you should move onto the next with the highest priority regardless of that task’s relation to the task you just completed. The other line of thinking recommends working on single projects or themes for entire days or at least extended portions of days.

New research from Stanford can help you understand when each will be most productive. As is often the case in productivity, the answer depends more on motivation-influencing factors than the hard skills of completing tasks. Watch the video below or read the transcript to find out how this works.

The Science of Productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how to accomplish your goals faster. It is part of the Anything But Idle productivity news podcast.

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If you’re interested in reading some of the rationale for the other way of approaching this challenge, read our article: Stop Trusting Your To-Do List to Ensure You’ll Accomplish Your Priorities.

Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Welcome to the Science of Productivity segment. In this segment, I bring you to a new piece of research on how to accomplish your goals faster. During this week’s segments, I want to share emerging research out of Stanford University on how to move between different types of tasks during the day to maximize your productivity.

The average professional switches context every 11.5 minutes. Context doesn’t necessarily mean switching tasks at the level we traditionally think of tasks. For example, it could mean switching between a paper you’re referencing in your browser and your email. Nevertheless, such data still implies that we switch between tasks quite frequently.

While frequent switching between tasks is generally something you want to minimize because of the well-publicized switching costs if switching is inevitable to a certain extent, how should we switch between tasks?

An associate professor of organizational behavior’s studied worker productivity on tea plantations in India to find out. What she found is that when tea leaf pickers were given certain tasks in addition to their core task of picking leaves, some tasks increased their productivity on their core task and some decreased their productivity or had no effect.

What distinguished productivity-boosting tasks from productivity-sapping tasks?

Facilitative tasks – those that are in service of the core task – boosted productivity, while non-facilitative tasks – those that do not support the core task in any direct way – had the opposite effect. For example, if you’re a writer, your core tasks may be writing articles and a facilitative tasks may be reading research, while a non-facilitative task may be editing the work of other writers on your team.

Professor Ranganathan found that introducing facilitative tasks increased productivity on the core task by 10% and that the effect lasted in part for a month. 

Ranganathan believes and supports with her research that facilitative tasks boost productivity because they increase what she calls “core task identification”, which is your connection to your work. Facilitative tasks increase core task identification by showing workers how their core task is supported by a host of supplementary tasks.

Now the work most of you listening to this do is very different from picking tea and you do a much wider variety of tasks over the course of the day. But many people I work with often feel that all the switching between tasks leaves them feeling scattered and unsure that they have accomplished anything meaningful – the opposite of core task identification.

This research suggests that if we could group like tasks together during our day, we may be able to boost our productivity by as much as 10%. Reflect on what your core tasks are and then try to find ways to schedule the supplementary tasks that facilitate those core tasks around the time you spend on the relevant core task.


When the Tasks Line Up: How the Nature of Supplementary Tasks Affects Worker Productivity.” Ranganathan, Aruna. Stanford Graduate School of Business Working Paper (Aug 2020).