May 2, 2018

How to become more engaged and productive at work

Haskayne prof Justin Weinhardt finds a little-known planning method proves most effective at handling demands of modern workplace
Research about daily planning methods provides insights into how to become more engaged and productive at work.

Research about daily planning methods provides insights into how to become more productive at work.

You may have heard the adage, ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.’ While this may be true, Haskayne School of Business professor Justin Weinhardt can now add to this old axiom, ‘but to be more successful — plan to be interrupted.’

Weinhardt’s latest research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, tested the impact of daily planning methods and how employees can take control of their work resulting in increased engagement and productivity. 

Planning and the modern workplace

The modern workplace is a dynamic environment. There is more ability to choose when and how to complete work. There are open spaces that can be distracting. There are demands to work collaboratively. And there are constant interruptions, requests for help, assignments of new tasks and impromptu updates. This is the daily struggle and employees need higher self-management in this environment.

Working with friend and colleague Michael Parke of the London School of Business, Weinhardt and their colleagues from University of MarylandUniversity of Texas, and UCLA, explored the performance of two planning techniques: time management planning and contingent planning in this ecosystem of constant interruptions. They also published an article in the Harvard Business Review online journal outlining how their research links to employee engagement. 

Most planning techniques we learn fall under the category of time management planning. This is where you outline tasks, prioritize them — and often schedule them into your calendar. In contingent planning, a person anticipates interruptions in their day and plans their workload accordingly. If you expect a co-worker will be needing help with a task at the beginning of the day, you may plan a lighter load for the morning and more in-depth work for the afternoon.

Researchers anticipated that time management planning would prove to be effective on days where there were few interruptions. On days where there were many interruptions, they expected contingent planning to be more effective. Their findings caused them to rethink their initial assumptions.

Justin Weinhardt explored the performance of two planning techniques: time management planning and contingent planning.

Justin Weinhardt explored the performance of two techniques: time management and contingent planning

Marnie Burkhart, Jazhart Studios

Contingent planning provides benefits every day

They found time management planning had positive effects on some days, but on days of high interruptions, it did not help much. What was astonishing was that the employees they surveyed — a mix of people in operations, finance, project management and marketing across industries from banking to contracting — reported high interruptions 19 per cent of the time.

“This means that even if you are in the good habit of planning daily, if you use the well-known method, you may be making no difference at all on one-fifth of your workdays,” says Weinhardt. “The good news is that contingent planning had a positive effect no matter the level of interruptions. Which makes us think — perhaps contingent planning is what we should turn to for planning in the modern workplace.”

Suggestions to improve your daily planning

Weinhardt shares some suggestions on how to become more engaged and productive at work through effective planning:

  • Do it daily — “People in our study most often did their planning the night before or in the morning, but research across the board indicates it needs to be consistent.”
  • Anticipate not only the work but also the environment — “Contingent planning requires more foresight,” explains Weinhardt, “therefore it may take a shift to get to this kind of planning. It involves thinking of the others that you are working with and anticipating their needs and what is happening around you.”
  • Keep the to-do list manageable — “When we see progress to our goals at a decent speed, we feel good. This is proven to fuel engagement. One of the problems with time management planning is that people get over-ambitious with their goals and lose momentum.”
  • Setting boundaries may help — “I turn off my email notifications if I am sitting down to write,” says Weinhardt. “It is an easy way to create a boundary for interruptions until I am ready for a break.”
  • Consider ‘banking’ work — “In other research we have shown that people who purposely work beyond goals in anticipation of interruptions to come are better able to deal with multiple goals.”