You know what’s the worst distraction — at least for me.
No, it’s not Facebook, email, or even other people.
It’s my own mind.
More specifically, the constantly yapping monkey that is inside my head.
It has a mind of its own, and no, it most certainly doesn’t want me to be productive.
Ever so often the monkey distracts me from what I’m trying to do and occasionally it makes me procrastinate.
I bet you have the same problem.
But there’s hope for us yet in the quest for taming this monkey.
In this post, I’m going to delve into one type of internal distraction, called the Zeigarnik Effect.
When you learn how it works, and how to deal with it, you have one less internal distraction to worry about.
Let’s give the monkey a banana to distract him from distracting us.
First, let’s find out what the Zeigarnik effect is.
It’s named after a Lithuanian-born psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Bluma was a psychology student at the Berlin University in 1920.
The story tells that when she was in a restaurant with her friends, she watched intriguingly how the waiter could remember an endless amount of orders from his customers.
However, after the waiter had delivered the orders, he immediately forgot what he had just served.
As a psychology student, Bluma was naturally curious about the reason behind this phenomena and started doing experiments to find out the cause of such occurrence.
What she found out was that unprocessed tasks tend to stay in our memory a lot better than finished tasks. So that’s why the waiter could remember all his orders perfectly when the orders were in an open-loop, but as soon as the waiter delivered the orders, he closed the mental loop and forgot about them.
Bluma published her research in “On Finished and Unfinished tasks” in 1927, and the effect was named, the Zeigarnik Effect.
Since then, this effect has been pinpointed as being the reason behind cliffhangers in movies, to quests in role-playing games.
Even earworms — that is, a song stuck in our heads repeatedly — are said to occur because of the Zeigarnik effect.
Nevertheless, the quest for Zeigarnik continued in 2006 when Roy F. Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo did some new tests with this effect in mind.
They presented their findings in a paper called: Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals.
What they found out was that you don’t actually need to complete a task to get it out from your mind, all it takes is to make an actionable plan on how to achieve that goal, and make it as specific as possible.
The present work revealed that people can commit to acting on a goal while simultaneously becoming more open to other pursuits. We found that when people formed a specific and effective plan, goal pursuit was suspended: Cognitive resources were reallocated to other, irrelevant tasks, and goal-directed action was delayed until execution of the specified plan.Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals
So how exactly this has to do anything with your ability to focus?
In short, if you have unfinished tasks — and let’s face it, most of us do — they distract you by stealing your attention when you’re trying to concentrate on your immediate task.
I also presume that while most of us do indeed have task lists in use, we don’t meticulously deconstruct and plan our tasks in advance.
But don’t you worry, I’ve listed three essential elements to help us fight the Zeigarnik.
Do one task at a time
Zeigarnik gives us another reason why we must vigorously do one task at a time, and not try to multitask.
When you have a clear to-do list for your tasks, and you do the tasks one at a time, you only get to concentrate on the given tasks at a time.
Besides it being much more ineffective, when you’re trying to multitask, and you don’t get your tasks done — you now have multiple new unfinished tasks haunting you.
I have tried to do this before, and while my mind is running with creative ideas concerning all the tasks that are unfinished, the current project I’m working to finish takes a toll because of my inability to concentrate flawlessly on that one task alone.
So, yes, I say it again. Do one task at a time. If you have a creative block, don’t immediately switch tasks to yet another undertaking.
Instead, do something that will get your creativity flowing:
- Take a walk.
- Take a long shower.
Capture ideas immediately
When on the computer, keep a distraction notebook.
Essentially, a distraction notebook is a notebook in where you capture all of your ideas and your tasks that come into your mind while you are working.
You remember that you have to buy milk — write it down.
Suddenly a cool creative idea comes into your mind — write it down.
At the end of the day, you might have multiple topics written in your notebook. You go through them and move them to their correct places.
Tasks you came up with go to your task manager, and your creative ideas and everything else goes to wherever you store them. I store them in my Evernote.
I find that it’s best to keep a physical notebook. This way you don’t have to open a note application on your computer when an idea pops into your mind. You could do that, but that only raises the possibility that you start doing something else on the computer or you start browsing your previous notes while you have the note application open.
So keep a physical notebook next to you at all times. Fresh page for every day, and at the end of the day, allocate them.
Let’s see what I’ve written in my distraction notebook.
As you can see, I’ve already started to divide my tasks into subtasks.
When you’re on the run, have your preferred note application ready on your phone at all times. No surprise, it’s Evernote again for me.
When I get an idea, I quickly jot down the idea and categorize it with tags. You could even do GTD on Evernote, and use the tags appropriately.
If you want to use Evernote for GTD, you can use tags for times when the task is due, and tags for the places where it must be done: home, office, etc.
Remember, with GTD, if the task is doable right away and under two minutes, do it immediately.
When you finish with your day, commit to a shutdown ritual
A shutdown ritual was a term that I came across when I read Cal Newport’s book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
In his book, he describes that at the end of his work day, he does a routine shutdown ritual, which consists of the following:
- Take a quick look at the email inbox to ensure that there is nothing which requires an urgent response.
- Transfer any new tasks, which are on your mind or which you wrote down in your notebook (distraction notebook), into your official tasks list.
- Once you have your tasks list open, take a look at your tasks to see that there’s nothing urgent.
Cal Newport also does this because of the Zeigarnik effect. However, he says that making explicit plans on how you’re going to proceed with your tasks takes up too much time, so he just mentally reviews the tasks, preparing for their execution.
He says that this is enough for him to make sure that he’s under control with his tasks.
I would personally modify this shutdown ritual, so that you actually take a look at your upcoming one of two tasks, and divide those tasks into subsections.
You don’t have to do this for all of your tasks, but at least make a detailed plan of the next upcoming task.
Let’s look at how we can divide a task into subsections:
Your next task is: Make a Slideshare presentation about carrots.
You quickly think ahead of the steps required for this task:
- Research the internet about carrots, and do a summary of the material.
- Draw an outline of the presentation by hand.
- Take a look at paletton.com for a nice color combination.
- Use Illustrator to make or edit graphic elements for the presentation.
- Make a draft of the presentation with Powerpoint.
- Finish the presentation.
Additionally, if you are a procrastinator, I believe this is the most powerful way to counter against it because one of the reasons why we procrastinate is that the task seems overwhelming, and we don’t know where to start.
When you have a task divided into subsections, TA-DA, the subsections themselves don’t seem crushing, and we DO know where to start, and in what order.
Just start from the first subtask and the momentum will carry you over.
Furthermore, if you have to stop your work, you know exactly where you left off when you resume, and the Zeigarnik effect won’t haunt you since you already have a detailed plan on how you’re going to continue the task.
Do you have problems with unfinished tasks bothering you? What task management methods do you use? Tell me about it in the comments.
Photograph of Bluma Zeigarnik, image source: http://psyhistorik.livejournal.com/16254.html