Diwas S. KC, Maryam Kouchaki, Bradley R. Staats, and Francesca Gino have written an HBS Working Paper titled "Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Long-Term Performance." These scholars found that individuals choose to work on easier tasks when they experience heavy workloads. Why? People enjoy a positive feeling when they are able to complete a series of tasks in fairly short order. Thus, individuals choose to satisfy themselves by choosing to work on easier tasks when they have a ton of work to do. In the short run, that's a very productive strategy. They cross quite a few items off of their to-do list. However, the researchers find that this task selection strategy may have negative long term performance consequences.
The study took place in the emergency department of a hospital. They studied over 90,000 patient visits to the emergency room over a two-year period. They found that doctors choose to work on easier patient cases when the ER is very busy. Naturally, they see more patients as a result of this bias toward selecting easier cases. In other words, short term productivity increases. However, the doctors may not capitalize on as many powerful learning opportunities if they always choose the easier cases. The doctors may not be as effective at tackling complicated cases if they work with those patients much less frequently. Indeed, the scholars found a negative long term effect on productivity if doctors exhibit this bias toward selecting easier cases when the workloads are high.
What's the implication for all of us? Be careful before you simply choose the short-term satisfaction of crossing many easy items off of your to-do list. Think carefully about the long term benefits of tackling tougher tasks. It's a balancing act, of course. You probably should go after some of the low-hanging fruit. You just have to be careful that you don't spend an inordinate amount of your time there, and thus miss key opportunities for learning and improvement that come with more challenging work.