“Nothing is more burdensome than an unfinished task”.- Jim Rohn
Have you ever found yourself waking up in the middle of the night and your mind gets busy ruminating about all those unfinished tasks you need to get done?
It could be an email you overlooked to send or an overdue bill you forgot to pay.
Similarly, do you find when you move from one project to another, before finalising all that needs to be done, your mind won’t let go ? It keeps ruminating about all those outstanding tasks.
It can feel relentless these nagging unpleasant thoughts that make you feel slightly stressed and anxious. The mind always seems to cling onto those intrusive thoughts as if your life depended on it.
This was my dilemma for a number of years.
It felt overwhelming until I took the time to better understand what was going on and find a way how to manage things better.
The Zeigarnik Effect
Believe it or not in the world of psychology has a term for those feelings of stress and anxiety you get from remembering and wanting to come back to unfinished tasks.
It’s called the ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’.
Observational research by a Russian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik revealed uncompleted tasks cause an underlying cognitive tension until things are completed.
She first witnessed this phenomenon while sitting in a busy restaurant in Vienna. She became aware the waiters were very adept at remembering in detail orders that were yet unpaid. However, once the bill was paid, the waiters had difficulty remembering the exact details of the orders.
What this shows us is tension or stress is caused when we need to generate a level of mental exertion in order to keep the task at the forefront of awareness. The mind can only let go and release the tension once the task is deemed complete or finished.
So knowing unfinished tasks will always keep us on edge causing us to feel anxious, stressed and tense what can we do to alleviate the pain?
Schedule it- If not now when?
Psychology wisdom tells us our unconscious mind isn’t necessarily badgering us to do that unfinished task right now before we move on. Rather, it is telling us we need to make a plan for when we will get it done in the future.
Research suggests by simply making a plan to deal with an unfinished task makes a huge difference in our ability to remain calm and focused.
It’s not so much about knowing what needs to be done as it is about deciding when to do it.
When we don’t know when or how we will finish the things on our task lists, our thoughts will typically wander from our current task to another leaving a trail of unfinished jobs.
When we don’t have a structured list of priorities, and a plan of attack, any disruption will inevitably take over.
You don’t have to constantly make choices about what to concentrate on: Just follow your schedule.
So what one of the best ways to achieve this?
Getting Things Done
One of the most effective tools I have found for scheduling my tasks is David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’. The main benefit of this system is the ability to reduce anxiety by emptying your mind of nagging tasks, placing them into a processing system, and scheduling chunks of time to single-mindedly do important things.
According to David Allen your human brain is an ineffective and unreliable storehouse of all the things you try to cram into it.
Lingering to-do items drain our energy and interrupt our focus. As long as you leave tasks unfinished, your mind remains unsettled.
All this “stuff” collectively litters your headspace. Therefore, getting all your stuff out of your head into a trusted system can have a huge impact on freeing up your thinking and help reduce stress and anxiety.
Applying GTD brings about a profound sense of clarity and relief.
By capturing what’s going on in our head, we achieve the sense of completion needed to eliminate the cognitive load of unfinished tasks.
GTD encourages you to capture everything that’s in your head on a regular basis and to clarify each item either by specifying a next action, or declaring the item unnecessary and dismissing it from your list.
Here’s how it works:
- Gather what’s holding your attention. Write down everything that is on your mind, from tasks, ideas, jobs you’re avoiding — everything. Just get them out of your head.
- Prioritise, clarify and categorise items. Establish whether something is actionable or not. If it isn’t make a decision on whether to throw it, file it, or hold it. If it is, decide whether to do it, delegate it, or defer it.
- Organise your tasks. Set context prompts for your tasks, and schedule reminders in your calendar.
- Take Action. With the above structured your mind is ready to take action and get things done.
Take Away Message
What I’ve learned from my experience is that having a lot of pending tasks isn’t what troubles us — it’s the anxiety caused by having a lot of things undefined in our heads and no clear plan of action to complete them.
While those unfinished tasks will continue to haunt me, I now know that I can put that energy to good use and actually get things done that I would have otherwise struggle with.
Do you have a process or plan of attack for getting things done?
Be part of the discussion- what works for you?