Work scheduling research typically prescribes task sequences implemented by managers. Yet employees often have discretion to deviate from their prescribed sequence. Using data from 2.4 million radiological diagnoses, we find that doctors prioritize similar tasks (batching) and those tasks they expect to complete faster (shortest expected processing time). Moreover, they exercise more discretion as they accumulate experience. Exploiting random assignment of tasks to doctors’ queues, instrumental variable models reveal that these deviations erode productivity. This productivity decline lessens as doctors learn from experience. Prioritizing the shortest tasks is particularly detrimental to productivity. Actively grouping similar tasks also reduces productivity, in stark contrast to productivity gains from exogenous grouping, indicating deviation costs outweigh benefits from repetition. By analyzing task completion times, our work highlights the tradeoffs between the time required to exercise discretion and the potential gains from doing so, which has implications for how discretion over scheduling should be delegated.
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