Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)

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.

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!

25 thoughts on “Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)”

  1. Interesting. I think there is a delicate balance of both needed. Without a plan, even a very loose plan, you typically won’t make concrete progress forward. But with too rigid of a plan you may lose out on creativity, spontaneity, and maybe fun!

    There has to be a time for both right? As suggested I’ve found scheduling a time for doing a specific task or working a plan definitely helps keep up with the day to day of life. But we often do our best thinking or have our best insights when we are not checking the boxes…like in the shower, driving to work, doing the dishes, etc.

    1. This is definitely true. I have found that when faced with a tough problem, the best solution is often to take a walk. Your mind works differently when it is not laser-focused on the problem.

      Thanks for the comment, Amy!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  2. This is so interesting to me because the way I operate at work and home could not be more different from each other.

    My “plan” at work is to put out the latest fire. It’s very reactionary so planning is a luxury I rarely have. Instead we use ‘business rules’ to help make decisions, and that helps, but it’s not ideal.

    On the personal front my strategy is to ‘fortify my weak spots’ (future post is almost done!). I try to identify the weakest spot the come up with detailed steps to strengthen it until it’s no longer my weak spot. Then I move on to the next weakest spot. The cycle never ends.

    Both ways of operating have their advantages, but I like to feel some measure of control so I prefer having a plan in place.

    1. When I joined up at my current office there was so much work to do that every day was just putting out fires. You didn’t have time to make a plan or get ahead, because you had to focus on the immediate deadlines. It took about a year to dig out and start being able to plan a bit ahead of time and significantly longer than that to get to a place where I can plan comfortably.

      I like your self-improvement cycle. It sounds like a really interesting strategy. Looking forward to reading that post!

      Thanks for stopping by, Ty!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  3. I definitely feel more productive and motivated when I have a plan to finish my tasks. Being able to check off my completed tasks give moe more motivation to tackle the left over tasks.

    Sometimes, when I get stuck on a problem, I need to decide when to push the pause button. I tried that a couple of times when I got stuck for a couple of hours. I left it till the next day. Somehow, I was able to solve the problem without struggles.
    Leo T. Ly @ recently posted…My 2017 Net Worth Performance Review – Q1My Profile

    1. Stepping away and letting our subconscious work on problems can be really helpful. It doesn’t seem intuitive that leaving a problem overnight would make it easier to solve, but sometimes it works!

      Thanks, Leo!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

    1. That is fair. I have found that on overwhelming projects it sometimes helps just to list out the next two or three steps and then reassessing once those are done. This can help break it down and make it feel a bit easier.

      Thanks for the comment, Mrs. Picky Pincher!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  4. Absolutely. I started putting my plans on my calendar, so most every task has a designated day and time for execution. I found my mind is clearer when I’m looking at just the next task on my calendar rather than a list of items for the day.

    1. Yes! I actually will break each day into a to do list, but I will put a page break in so that I can only see one to three tasks at a time (depending on how big they are). Once those tasks are done I delete them and add a new page break after the next couple tasks. It doesn’t really make sense, but I find it easier to be productive when I am looking at fewer tasks at once.

      Thanks for stopping by, Claudia!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  5. I am getting ready to put together a massive plan at work. We have some broken pieces so I am going to put together a process flow and then put together a plan to breakdown each one of these broken pieces. Otherwise I know that we will talk about the process but never do anything as we are prone to do sometimes.

    1. That makes sense. I’ve found that keeping a list of shorter items (if I can’t immediately get to them) is helpful in reducing anxiety from the fear that I may forget them. It helps get them out of my head and gives me a “plan” in that I know I will come back for them even though they don’t need a full plan breaking down the steps.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  6. This explains a lot, Matt. I’ve generally enjoyed jobs/tasks that can have discrete steps where some or all of it is “finished” rather than ongoing tasks that need to be revisited on a regular basis. Maybe it’s the ability to move on afterward, or maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment as each gets finished. But I rarely have transferred that preference outside of work, and maybe I’d get more done if I did. A few more plans (especially multi-step plans) would probably help a lot, especially with some of the more amorphous goals like decluttering.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…State of the Blog March 2017My Profile

    1. Always worth a shot! I have found that breaking down goals like cleaning and decluttering into rooms (or corners, bookshelves/drawers, etc.) helps in creating that direction and sense of accomplishment.

      Thanks for stopping by, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  7. Matt, thanks! I have noticed this in myself. My Brain is great at keeping a ‘thread’ running to remind me about a certain task. However, as you have pointed out, I get a few of those ‘threads’ running, and suddenly it is contributing to my multi-tasking problems. I definitely need a plan, thanks for reminding me!

    I totally agree with your theory, and I did not have time to read the 18 page study. Maybe you can answer a question. I always wonder about cause and effect (Be careful, I am dangerous when I start thinking). You stated that “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.” Is this because they made a plan, OR are people that make a plan already more naturally inclined to better focus, etc.? Did the study have people naturally not good at focusing and who naturally do not make plans, then make a plan and study the outcome? Again, I am not trying to argue, I know from experience that a plan clears my mind for the present, but I also want to understand reality, and not a researchers slant. Thanks!

    1. The experiments were done in a lab setting and the participants were randomly assigned. They basically made some people leave work unfinished without a plan and made others create a plan to finish it, so the results would be based on whether or not a plan was created rather than on anything about the personality of someone who plans.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!
      Matt recently posted…Politics and the Things We Can ControlMy Profile

  8. I find a plan helpful because without one I might needlessly worry or obsess too much, especially on inconsequential things. If I can assign those little tasks to a day, I find I just get them done.

    I totally agree on the cleaning. We came up with a daily schedule which we veer from occasionally, but a road map makes it easier to get back on track.
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…The Eve of Destruction Approach to Retirement PlanningMy Profile

    1. Your last point is definitely true. I will often find myself going off script or taking my to do list out of order, but knowing where I am differing from the plan helps to correct course instead of just randomly jumping from thing to thing.

      Thanks for the comment, Mrs. Groovy!
      Matt recently posted…Politics and the Things We Can ControlMy Profile

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