When Life Interrupts Your Daily Checklist

Are You Planning the Wrong Way for the Modern Workplace?

Apr 09, 2018
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Some people fail to plan. Others plan the wrong way for the modern workplace. New research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business distinguishes between two daily planning techniques and determines that one drives better results in fast-paced environments with frequent interruptions.

“The best-laid schemes often go awry,” says Smith School management professor Subra Tangirala, co-author of the study featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology. “That happens more and more often in corporate settings, where employees have  more autonomy and take on broader roles with many competing tasks and goals.”

Some estimates suggest employees are interrupted once every three minutes, on average, which adds up to about 160 diversions per workday. Tangirala says this can create a planning paradox: “Employees require greater planning to deal with the complex demands of their jobs, yet their planning is potentially less beneficial because work has become inherently unpredictable.”

One coping method is simply to show up at work with no plan, and reactively switch from task to task without much forethought. “Unfortunately, high-priority tasks tend to get lost in the mix this way,” Tangirala says.

He and his co-authors look instead at the relative merits of time management and contingency planning.

The first type of planning is the classic checklist approach. It involves determining tasks to be performed on a particular day, prioritizing and scheduling such tasks, and sketching out the approximate amount of time to be spent on each task.

The second approach, which might be combined with the first, involves thinking about possible interruptions or disruptive events that could transpire on a particular day and outlining alternate courses of action in case of their occurrence.

Tangirala and his co-authors find that both types of planning enhance employee engagement by facilitating a sense of goal progress and velocity. But daily interruptions moderate these benefits.

“The positive effects of time management planning are dampened when employees face many interruptions in their day,” the authors conclude. “In contrast contingency planning helps employees stay engaged and perform well despite frequent interruptions. 

Part of the reason is psychological. Tangirala says contingency planning helps employees view interruptions as part of their work as opposed to seeing them as distractions. They can set more realistic targets and go home feeling better about their productivity.

Read more: When daily planning improves performance: The importance of planning type, engagement and interruptions is featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

About the Author(s)

Subra Tangirala is Dean's Professor of Management. He teaches the leadership course in the MBA program. In his research, he explores reasons why employees often remain silent despite having information, concerns, or suggestions to share, and what organizations can do to facilitate candid exchange of ideas at the workplace.

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Robert H. Smith School of Business
Map of Robert H. Smith School of Business
University of Maryland
Robert H. Smith School of Business
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College Park MD 20742