Didn’t finish your daily to-do list at work? Don’t dwell on it

Study finds an employee’s downtime mindset impacts day-to-day productivity

Man looking at sticky notes questionably.

Release Date: July 27, 2023

“Instead of simply treating a missed goal as a mistake or failure that should be punished, managers need to help employees bounce back and protect them from falling into a psychological downward spiral.”
University at Buffalo School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In today’s complex and unpredictable work environments, understanding how employees respond to unachieved daily work goals is crucial to supporting their well-being and day-to-day productivity, according to new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study found this impact can be mitigated by a workplace climate that encourages a future-oriented mindset and offers practical insight for managers seeking to support and retain employees.

When employees envisioned how to fix a problem if it happened again, rather than reflecting on the failed goal, they were more likely to achieve the goal the next day.

“By shifting our focus from ‘why employees failed to achieve goals’ to ‘how employees react to unrealized goals,’ we found that daily unattained goals can lead employees to develop strategies to cope with a cycle of negative thoughts of failure,” says study co-author Min-Hsuan Tu, PhD, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “These coping strategies that focus on the past may relieve some discomfort in the moment, but are often disruptive and can make employees less productive.”

The researchers analyzed data of 485 daily reports from 100 working professionals in an executive business program, measuring how employees’ perception of failed goals influenced their ability to bounce back from work goals they didn’t achieve. The data was collected through two phases, the second of which included two daily surveys for five consecutive weekdays, both before and after work.

The study provides a comprehensive picture of how after-work thought processes can impact day-to-day goals. Tu says that despite leaving work physically, employees can continue to dwell on the goals they missed that day, and that managers can help their staff recover through guided writing exercises, workshops on positive reflections and by providing additional support.

“Instead of simply treating a missed goal as a mistake or failure that should be punished, managers need to help employees bounce back and protect them from falling into a psychological downward spiral,” says Tu. “Based on our findings, managers should encourage future-oriented thinking in the workplace to protect employees from stress and anxiety, and the impaired pursuit of their daily goals.”

Tu collaborated on the study with Yifan Song, PhD, assistant professor of management in the Texas A&M University Mays Business School; Yanran Fang, PhD, assistant professor of leadership and organizational management in the Zhejiang University School of Management, and Satish Krishnan, associate professor of information systems in the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode.

Now in its 100th year, the UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit management.buffalo.edu.

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Alexandra Richter
Assistant Director of Communications
School of Management