Working Hour by Hour: Balancing Procrastination and Progress

After the Orioles game on Friday night, I dropped by the office at around 10 pm to grab some things on my way to the parking garage. As I was leaving, I saw several students studying in the lobby and it reminded me of some of the late weekend nights I would spend preparing for a major Monday exam. If I only knew then what I do now…

When approaching a major task, whether it be studying for an exam or tackling a work-related project, most people choose one of two general time management strategies: setting aside large blocks of time to complete the task in as few sittings as possible (with one inevitably being right before the deadline), or making slow but steady progress gradually over time. I hope to convince you that the latter is probably a better way to work, and one that may even give you back some of your weekend.

First, maintaining focus on a single task over a long period of time can be a challenge. Attention peaks at the beginning of a task and steadily decreases over time, with the greatest drop in focus occurring at around an hour. Fortunately, taking a break for 10-15 minutes can restore this loss in attention and return you to peak productivity. According to a study highlighted in a 2014 piece in The Atlantic, the ideal formula is a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes of work, but few of you probably work in these increments, so breakdowns of 45 and 15 minutes or 50 and 10 minutes will probably be easier to remember.

Second, a lot of unfinished tasks are probably competing for your attention beyond the one with a looming deadline, and these intrusions can make it even more difficult to focus. This can be partially explained by the Zeigarnik effect, named after the Gestalt psychologist who first described the phenomenon in the 1920s. She postulated that unfinished tasks introduce a type of mental tension, leading you to persistently recall them until they can be effectively resolved. Attempting to focus on a single task over long periods of time can make you especially vulnerable to the Zeigarnik effect, as unfinished work will undoubtedly start to pile up. However, if you divide your time into smaller increments and dedicate each to a separate task, you can move forward on a variety of unfinished tasks over the course of a day.

Finally, trying to get everything done in one or two large blocks of time can actually impair some of the most valuable processes your brain undergoes when managing complex tasks. This is especially true for creative thinking, which rarely thrives in the shadows of a rapidly approaching deadline (although there are certainly exceptions). Striking a fine balance between procrastination and progress was the subject of a recent TED Talk by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and faculty member at the Wharton School. Based on research he performed as part of his book on original thinkers, he describes this balance as being crucial for fostering the creative thinking necessary for big ideas.

So how can you put these concepts to work for you? Here are a few simple steps:

  1. Allow yourself 45-50 minutes to focus on a single task. Set any mobile devices aside and use this time to its fullest (more on multitasking in a later blog).
  2. Next, take a break for 10-15 minutes. You can even use this time to reward yourself with the distractions you had to put away in #1 above.
  3. When you return, spend the next 45-50 minutes on a new task. If you’re really pressed for time with an upcoming deadline, you can return to the original task, but the goal is to make progress on all of your projects simultaneously.
  4. Continue to arrange your day in increments of 50 and 10 minutes (or 45 and 15). I automate this process by blocking off my calendar for an hour at a time (see below) and setting alerts for the next task to fire at the 45-minute mark by default. These alerts are a gentle nudge to finish up my current task in the next 3-5 minutes and prepare for a break.
  5. For simple tasks that are not part of a major project and may just take a few minutes to complete, bundle these together in a single block. I usually block these off as “Miscellaneous.”


Do you have additional suggestions? Want to share your workflow strategies? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Back to School

This past week marked my first week of classes for the 2016-2017 academic year.

Normally that would refer to my role as an instructor. However, in the above context it also means my first week of taking classes.

Earlier this year I decided to return to graduate school part-time to pursue a Master of Science in Applied Psychology, with a concentration in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology. For those of you unfamiliar with the field (I certainly was until this past year), I/O psychology is essentially the study of how humans behave and interact in the workplace.

The desire to study I/O psychology may seem unusual given my career path up to this point, but I think it helps explain why I have become less interested in the content of my work and more interested in the processes by which I and others do that work. For example, I find it incredibly disheartening that so many people enter health care because of their desire to serve others, yet they are cast out into complex systems that seem to present them with nothing but barriers to their success. The results have been devastating, as burnout among health care professionals seems to have reached an all-time high.

What is it about health care that does that to people? Is it a sense of altruism among health care professionals that leads them to put others’ needs above their own, even to the detriment of their physical, mental, and emotional well-being? Is it because our system often perversely incentivizes quantity over quality, whether it be the number of procedures performed (or documentation boxes checked) rather than the actual care provided? Or is it our collective refusal to question some of the more ingrained traditions that drive our existing processes, such as the organization of postgraduate training or the hierarchal structure of health care?

These are the kinds of questions that interest me, and the ones I hope to research after completing the I/O degree.

The Psychology of Branding: An Art and a Science?

Last week, the theme of TED Radio Hour was the concept of branding and how we assign value to the things we purchase or experience. Research seems to indicate that most of the value we assign to certain brands is the result of our perceptions rather than any measurable differences in quality. For example, how many of the individuals you know who purchased a MacBook did so after concluding that OS X offered them a superior computing experience? There may be a few, but it is probably far fewer than the number of people who purchased a MacBook because of how it made them feel.

You are probably familiar with studies showing that people tend to rate wine more highly when being told it is expensive. I was too. As a health care professional, I’ve also seen this concept play out when patients claim that one drug works better for them than a therapeutically equivalent alternative. But the research that really got my attention during last week’s podcast was one where participants who were told wine was more expensive not only claimed it tasted better – the activity of their brains also changed to match it.

The study consisted of 11 participants who were told they would be sampling five different wines identified by price. However, only three different wines were actually used. Two of the wines were given to the participants twice, once with the true price and a second time with a fake price. The third wine was assigned its true price. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity while participants sampled each wine. As expected, participants claimed the more expensive wines tasted better, even if it was the same wine assigned an artificially higher price. However, what made the study so interesting was that fMRI results indicated that brain wave activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (i.e., the part of the brain that processes pleasure) also increased when participants were told they were drinking more expensive wine, even if it was the same wine they had already tasted at a lower price.

I recognize the study is small and not one upon which you can base any final conclusions, but it does seem to suggest that there may actually be physiologic reasons for why we prefer certain products and experiences to others. In other words, it’s not just that we perceive them to be better – we may actually derive greater pleasure from them because our brains have been conditioned to associate price with quality.

So what should we take away from this study? Well, other than providing some justification (to yourself or perhaps to your spouse/significant other) that it is perfectly reasonable to upgrade to the more expensive product or experience, I think it also illustrates the powerful influence that branding can have on human behavior. For example, I will probably respond less smugly to a patient who claims a generic product does not work as well for them, even if I know there is no actual difference in its efficacy compared to the branded alternative. As it relates to work, I think it also emphasizes the importance of curating a personal brand, and how that can influence the way people perceive you. If you can develop a reputation for doing good work, clients may be more likely to seek your expertise in the future, even if you do not have a measurable advantage over your peers.


If you would like to learn more about branding and its impact on decision-making, check out the August 12 episode of TED Radio Hour. The study described above is also featured in a 2011 TED Talk by Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, which you can watch below:

Please Pardon the Dust

Ever since I first registered the domain, I had hoped to create a space for myself on the web that existed apart from my perspectives on health care. I had hoped to create a portfolio of my work as well as an avenue through which I could explore new opportunities. I also hoped to continue writing while not feeling constrained to focus only on those topics related to cardiovascular medicine, the profession of pharmacy, or health care in general. Instead, I wanted to begin examining some of the forces that help shape human behavior, especially as individuals interact within complex organizations like the health care system.

This website is intended to be the realization of all of those things. Although it is not yet finished — thus the reference to “dust” — I hope to continue to build it while also developing new content. As I head back to graduate school this fall, I remain optimistic that there will be no shortage of ideas to explore. Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you’ll continue to visit in the future.


P.S., If you’re looking for content related to cardiovascular medicine, please check out the ATRIUM Cardiology Collaborative, which I co-founded with my colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.