The remedy for unproductive busyness

Raise your hand if you feel busy. Keep it up, still, if you think the busyness is hurting your productivity. If your hand is still up, then you should keep on reading.

It’s very easy to succumb to the temptation of staying busy even when it is counterproductive: It is the way our brains are wired. But there is a remedy that we can employ to translate that predisposition into productivity.

Research points to two reasons we often feel busy (but not necessarily productive) – and they are both self-imposed.

– People have an aversion to idleness. We have friends who will, by choice, drive miles out of their way to avoid waiting for a few minutes at traffic lights, even if the detour means their journey takes more time. Research suggests that the same applies to work, where many of the things we choose to do are merely justifications to keep ourselves busy.

– We have a bias toward action. When faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous one, we prefer to do something, even if it’s counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.

The action bias can lead us to jump into developing solutions before we fully understand a problem. In one study we conducted, we found that people feel more productive when they are executing tasks rather than when they are planning them. Especially when under time pressure, they perceived planning as a waste of time – even if it actually leads to better performance than jumping into the task head-first.

Choosing to be busy over real progress can be an easy choice; being productive, by contrast, is much more challenging. What helps? Reminding ourselves that taking the time to reflect can help make us more productive.

In a study we conducted at the tech-support call center at Wipro, a business-process outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India, we found that thinking improves performance. We asked groups of employees going through training to spend the last 15 minutes of each day writing about and reflecting on the lessons they had learned that day. Other employees just kept working at the end of the day for those 15 minutes and did not receive additional training. The result? Over the course of one month, the reflection group increased its performance on the final training test by an average of 22.8% more than the control group of trainees who had been working 15 minutes longer per day!

Reflection has such beneficial effects on performance because it makes us more aware of where we are, gives us information about our progress, and lends us the confidence we need to accomplish tasks and goals.

Through reflection, we can better understand the actions we are considering and ensure they are the ones that will make us productive. As a mentor once told one of us: “Don’t avoid thinking by being busy.”

(Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard Business School, a faculty affiliate of the Behavioral Insights Group and the author of “Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed , and How We Can Stick to the Plan.” Bradley Staats is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate