Harnessing Two Horsemen of Productivity Havoc

Ever wonder why it’s so easy to remember all the stuff not finished and yet not remember all the things done? For some reason, I can’t stop thinking about an unfinished project, and it just keeps popping like Jiffy Pop in my head. However, ask me what I did get done, and I draw a big blank. For the youngsters out there, Jiffy Pop is popcorn and entertaining to cook on the stovetop. 

Science has a name for this phenomenon, and it’s called the “Zeigarnik effect.” In plain terms, it occurs when the brain more readily recalls an interrupted task than a completed one. In other words, uncompleted jobs are remembered better than completed ones. My regards to Bluma Zeigarnik, the psychologist who discovered this effect. I thought it was just my quirky thing, but science says all our brains will do this. 

Two researchers at Florida State University, E. J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister, call it “mental tension.” Perhaps like me, you would prefer to have some downtime and mute that niggling concern running in the background about some unfinished something. Research shows that this “mental tension” about unfinished tasks can distract people from completing new tasks. The bottom line is that unfinished tasks decrease productivity and create distractions. That is not the news we want, but better information is coming. 

Harnessing Two Horsemen of Productivity Havoc

The Florida State University researchers theorized that plan-making could lessen the distracting impact of the Zeigarnik effect. When their participants were allowed to design specific plans for their unfinished projects, their distracting thoughts evaporated. Their theory was that the techniques for finishing the project help achieve the goal and free up cognitive resources needed for new pursuits. 

While discussing brain phenomena and productivity, we can’t forget Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states the work you decide to do will fill the time you allot to it. Cyril Northcote Parkinson coined the term in a humorous essay for “The Economist” in 1955. 

For example, you are given a two-week deadline to complete a project proposal. You feel relieved knowing you have plenty of time. But, the distant deadline causes you to take longer than needed to finish the task, or you procrastinate and complete it just barely before the due date. So the job has expanded to fill the time you gave it. 

Studies have shown that we think of how much time is available to complete the task instead of how much time we actually need. Knowing that we have a set amount of time to do something often inspires us to leave work to the very last minute – procrastination rears its ugly head again. 

How do we leverage these two effects and harness their power for good? Is there a way to channel these into a force of productivity? Consider some of these tactics in your quest to conquer your list. 

How to use the Zeigarnik effect:

Make a plan – creating detailed plans to accomplish goals helps relieve stress (the cognitive tension) and achieve your goals. Try to make a plan for the next one at the end of each week (or day) and work on seeing it through to quiet the cognitive brain activity that is decreasing your productivity and taking up space you need for other activities such as sleep or leisure time. 

Embrace it – This cognitive tension can provide the motivation to finish tasks and develop better habits. Completing a task can give an individual a sense of accomplishment, pleasure, and inspiration, promoting self-confidence and lowering anxiety. Recognize how much better and more accessible you feel and let those feelings remind you why planning your goals is essential. 

Overcome the Parkinson’s Law effect with these five great ideas from Asana:  

  1. Plan your work strategically – create a detailed plan to assess how long tasks will take. 
  2. Set self-imposed deadlines – scope out how much time you need to set realistic deadlines. 
  3. Try timeboxing – set goals to finish tasks within specific, focused boxes of time. 
  4. Try the Pomodoro Technique – Increase productivity using focused work sessions and frequent short breaks. 
  5. Use task management tools – set deadlines, manage priorities, and track tasks from beginning to end. 

Harnessing these two riders can be a real advantage for productivity and overall mental health. No one wants to come up against these scamps without a plan. And don’t forget the Jiffy Pop!

Katherine Jahnke

Katherine Jahnke

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach, Owner/Founder

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