Here at Optimize Your Life we’ve talked about the need for more focus in our lives.
One way to achieve that, which we have explored previously, is to avoid multitasking.
But multitasking is not the only force assaulting our focus. One other major distractor is unfinished tasks.
Today we’re going to look at the Zeigarnik Effect and how to defeat it.
The Zeigarnik Effect is essentially a fancy way of saying that when you have an incomplete task or goal, your brain keeps thinking about it.
This is the reason behind that sense of creeping anxiety you feel when your mind keeps jumping back to work that you know you need to do. Your brain keeps telling you, “Hey! Hey! We still need to finish that report! We should be working on the report!” It doesn’t care that you are busy responding to urgent emails.
This would probably be fine in a less busy era. If we lived a lifestyle in which we only had to pursue a few tasks or goals at a time, then this would actually be a great tool to aid focus.
But we don’t. So it isn’t.
Instead, it just distracts us from whatever we happen to be doing. Because of this, giving in to it won’t help. If we were to give in and switch to working on the report, our brain would start yelling, “But what about those urgent emails! We need to respond to the emails!”
So what do we do?
Make a Plan
Let’s bring in the researchers!
A set of experiments out of Florida State University explored this very question a few years ago.
What they found is that we need to make a plan. The more specific the better, but even putting a next step on our to do list will help.
By creating a plan, we are giving our mind instructions on when and how to act next. When I add “Read FSU study” to my to do list for Friday, my mind knows that when I sit down at my computer on Friday I will be reminded of the task and will read the study. There’s no more work to be done right now.
Once this plan is in place, my brain will leave me alone until the next step pops up.
Essentially, I am hitting pause on this goal with a plan to hit play again at a specific point in the future. And once I hit pause I can redirect my mind to work more fully on other tasks.
The experiments found that participants who made a plan for unfinished tasks showed better focus, better reading comprehension, and better all around results on the tasks that were in front of them.
When Not to Make a Plan
We can also turn this around.
Is there a problem that you’re having trouble solving? Something that you are struggling with?
You might want to try leaving this task or issue unpaused.
If we do, our brains will continue working in the background on the problem. We may be able to find answers in unexpected places. We may see patterns and connections that we would not otherwise see.
But use this trick cautiously!
It comes with a cost. As noted above, leaving a task unpaused will cause you to have less focus and worse results on other tasks that you are working on in the meantime. Because of this, it may be best to use this strategy in short bursts. Leave a problem unsolved without a plan for a few hours and then put a next step in your to do list so that your mind can move on.
So to review, my advice is to always make a plan! Except sometimes maybe don’t. Got it?
(I’ve always had a problem with favoring nuance over certainty…Sorry!)
What do you think? Have you found plans help reduce distractions or anxiety? Do you think it makes sense to strategically avoid plans sometimes, or is it better to have a hard and fast rule? Let us know in the comments!