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Q&A: Time Management for Work and Screens

Fuqua School of Business professor Jordan Etkin shares tips and insights from her research

When it comes to time management, conventional wisdom says setting boundaries can be helpful for staying on track.

But applied to screen time, setting time limits can lead people to spend more time online, according to research by Fuqua School of Business marketing professor Dr. Jordan Etkin and colleagues at the University of Michigan and University of Delaware.

Etkin said their theory has other applications to how we manage time in other parts of life, such as at work.Fuqua School of Business professor Jordan Etkin has researched how setting time limits can impact screen time. Photo courtesy of the Fuqua School of Business.

“We came up with what we think is a pretty interesting and generalizable theory about how the presence of limits impacts behavior more broadly,” said Etkin, who presented on time management during a live discussion on Fuqua’s LinkedIn page. “They can have these counterintuitive effects, where any amount of consumption, whether it’s time or you can even think of calories or even speed limits, any behavior that’s over the limit would be bad, but any amount that’s under the limit actually feels pretty good.”

Working@Duke spoke with Etkin about her research and how to best to manage time at work and on screens.

How does your research around time management online (screens) relate to work projects, tasks, etc.?

When it comes to work, time management is a crucial skill that helps people stay on track and accomplish goals.

“The reality of most of our jobs is we have multiple tasks, responsibilities and then, of course, all of the outside work we either are obligated to do or want to pursue,” Etkin said. “In order to accomplish all the things we have going on in our lives, we have to be effective at managing time.”

Etkin’s research reveals that people are not effective regulators of their time. In numerous experiments, setting a timer as a reminder for a limit actually caused people to spend more time online compared to those given no time limit.

This is because using an app or timer reinforces using all of the time allotted, instead of having to decide for yourself when to stop online activity.

“For limits to actually be effective, people have to be pretty well calibrated setting limits that constrain their behavior,” Etkin said. “In our work, we find that people aren’t well calibrated.”

Etkin’s findings relate to time management at work and draw a close relationship to Parkinson’s Law, or the idea that “tasks expand to fill the time that we give them,” Etkin said. This means that without discipline, people can spend more time than needed on work tasks.

While each person must learn what their own individual time constraints should be, an example of a reasonable limit at work might be giving yourself an hour at a time to work on an important project or presentation instead of setting an ambiguous time limit of an afternoon or an entire day.

“The limit level itself will be quite important in that if you set high limits, you may end up spending more time on whatever activity it is that you hadn’t necessarily needed to or intended to,” Etkin said. “Setting conservative limits for manageable tasks or shorter breaks would be my advice.”

Multitasking can slow progress on tasks at work. What’s your take on this?

While multitasking can provide benefits in situations, Etkin said multitasking on “brain power” activities that require attention and expertise, like preparing a report or writing, is inefficient. The transition from one task to another can be a stumbling block that slows down progress.

“We have to download whatever we’ve been thinking about, whatever procedural knowledge or substantive knowledge we need to do Task A,” Etkin said. “We have to load that in our brains and load up all the things that we need for Task B. That’s effortful for cognitive effort as well as it can take time. That ramp down, ramp up means that when we switch between things really quickly, we can lose some efficiencies that come from staying focused on one thing.”

For some transactional tasks, such as checking email while completing paperwork, multitasking provides productivity benefits without compromising the quality of the work, Etkin said. She suggested identifying tasks that might be suited for multitasking by determining logistics and time needed for that task.

What are your top pro tips for managing time at work?

First, intentionally schedule breaks on your calendar. During busy days, it’s important to formalize breaks on your calendar to give your brain a chance to rest.

“It’s beneficial for mental clarity, it’s good to get up, good for physical and mental health, all of these things” Etkin said. “Ideally, you go outside. Those breaks can be short, even 10 minutes. Maybe you end the meeting at 2:50 instead of 3:00 and give yourself a short break.”

Another key tip is to set priorities and know the limits of your schedule. Etkin said it can be helpful to start each day by setting a manageable list of priorities for the day and stick to it.

"One thing that I’ve worked with in my own life is if you never get to the end of your daily to-do list and you’re bumping things until the next day, then you head into the weekend or into the evenings and you’re still playing catchup; work is still on your mind,” Etkin said. “That’s very stressful for people to never be done with work.”

Finally, Etkin endorses performing a time audit on your workday. A time audit is a process that helps to track behavior by recording how your day is spent. Rather than tracking time in the moment — which can slow down progress on a task — Etkin recommended writing down how long it took to complete a task and track everything on your schedule for a period of time, like a week. That process can help identify areas where time is wasted to better stay on course in the future.

“You may find you’re happy with where your time is going,” Etkin said. “Or maybe you want to spend more time brainstorming ideas with your colleges or spend more time with your email closed, focused on some task. You’re trying to get a sense of where your time is going and thinking about an allocation or distribution that you’re happy with.”

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