We are all terrible at managing our own time, scientists prove

Every job has a prescribed set of daily tasks assigned to it. Teachers must teach classes. Doctors must see X number of patients. I need to file this story to my editor.

There’s a human tendency to think that maybe we the employees would be better at scheduling ourselves than the companies and corporations we work for. Who wants to be shackled to deadlines and limited timeframes for production? Why not let our inner selves be free?

Here’s why: we’re not good at it. A Harvard Business School study found that when employees went rogue and deviated from their prescribed schedules, they actually became less productive and efficient. The researchers looked at 2,766,209 cases that a radiology firm processed between 2005 and 2007 to figure out what drives people to deviate from company-mandated tasks, and if that autonomy helped radiologists work more quickly.

Choosing our own schedules makes us slower

First, they found out that many employees were veering from their company-approved schedules to manage their own time.

As a test, the researchers examined radiologists, who examine x-rays. While their company wanted them to look at images on a first-come, first-served basis, 42% of radiologists would independently choose the order of images they needed to process.

The result: the radiologists who did things their way worked more slowly. The time it took those rogue radiologists to read an image increased by 13%, which cost the doctors more time and their firm up to 3% increase in profits lost.

Why we go rogue and why that makes us slower

Not surprisingly, we go rogue when we get more experienced at our jobs, which convinces us we know better than company policies. With seniority comes familiarity with one’s job, and the desire to be more autonomous about how we complete these responsibilities.

With each year that the radiologists worked at the firm, the likelihood that they would make these independent changes to their queue increased by 18.4%.

The choice to defy the accepted practice wasn’t random, though. The researchers suggested that radiologists were doing this so that they could do the easier, shorter cases before taking on the more daunting, difficult cases. Radiologists were also changing up their queues, so that they could handle cases by categories and get their brain scans done all at once.

These changes sound good in theory — but the decision-making was costing employees time. The researchers found that employees fail to take into account the time lost in just making your own schedule decisions: “people fail to consider the time it takes just to choose one task over another, in what they believe to be the best interest of personal productivity.”

For leaders who have to make many minor and large decisions a day, figuring out ways to prioritize decision making is key to limiting inefficiency and preventing decision fatigue. That’s why former President Obama always wore the same clothes. As he told Vanity Fair in 2012, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Of course, this study does not mean that managers shouldn’t empower their employees to make decisions about their work. But a well-designed schedule should make it easier for employees to prioritize their tasks, so that they don’t have to think about minor annoyances like order of tasks, and can focus on more essential tasks like doing their job.