Few things are more dispiriting than checking your to-do list at the end of the day and realizing you can only cross out one thing: “Monday” becomes “Tuesday.” You nibbled away at a lot of things but didn't actually finish anything. There’s no proof you even got out of bed today, let alone worked your tail off.
Unfinished tasks are like a great big wet mutt sitting on your feet all day. You can’t ignore them, and they’re not going away till you deal with them — as the Lithuanian-born psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was among the first to observe, back in 1920s Vienna.
Watching waitresses in a busy restaurant one afternoon, she noticed something odd: they had no problem remembering their customers’ orders so long as those orders were “active.” But the moment the meal was the delivered and the check paid, the order vanished from the waitresses’ memory. If you asked her that night what the noisy kid in the corner in the yellow shirt ordered for lunch, she couldn’t tell you. This phenomenon, subsequently confirmed by the psychologist’s own studies, is now known as the “Zeigarnik Effect,” and it’s often deployed in the productivity space. When you take a break, people are urged, make sure you take it in the middle of a task rather than the end; your subconscious will keep exhaustively turning the soil until you return to your desk.
It’s hard work to be half-done a lot of things.
Stressful, too. Having a lot of unfinished business creates low-grade, grinding anxiety.
One solution? Choose a single thing on your to-do list and make a pledge: you will get it done and dusted, even if that means a very late night. In effect, as the Cambridge neuroscientist John Coates points out, you are swapping long-term chronic stress for short-term acute stress. That’s a good trade. Chronic stress creates all kinds of health problems; it even accelerates aging. Short blasts of acute stress, on the other hand, can actually prime the body to better health by stimulating the immune system and various repair mechanisms in the body.
The deadline gives you a finish line, after which you’re free and clear. Sure, it can be a bit uncomfortable to tighten the screws like that. But the reward is huge relief when it’s done and you can put it behind you and move on. This jibes with what the positive psychology literature has been saying for decades. Adding nice things to our lives doesn’t increase happiness all that much, but subtracting irritants most definitely does. And one of the biggest irritants for many of us is half-cooked projects – half-cooked either because we kept getting pulled out of the kitchen, or because we pulled ourselves out of the kitchen by caving to distraction, over and over and over again.
Some companies have figured this out. An Australian software firm called Atlassian gives its developers one full day “off” each quarter to see some pet project through to completion. The team doesn’t even have to work on site. The only requirement is that they have something to show for their work the next morning, some “deliverable.” (CEOs Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar call these “ShipIt Days.”) The strategy has produced all kinds of software solutions that would likely never have existed otherwise. Not to mention a lot of happy employees. People tend to find it immensely satisfying to finish a job once they’ve started it. This is how deep work gets done.
Or even not-so-deep work.
For the better part of a year, we talked about renovating our daughter’s bedroom as she prepared to start high school. We’d made a few stabs at replacing the too-kiddish curtains, putting a bookcase in, tidying up. It all felt like lipstick on a pig. Then Maddy and I decided to just devote a whole Saturday to it. Whatever we could make it by Sunday morning was what it was going to be. It was an exercise in purging, cleaning, prepping, painting, assembling, cursing, re-assembling, and finally high-fiving and collapsing. The enterprise, in the end, unfolded like this.
In retrospect, this wasn’t so much productivity hack as a parenting hack. Maddy knew that she alone couldn’t pull this off by herself, and she knew that her dad couldn’t pull it off by himself. It only happened because we shared a vision, an allen wrench, and some ice cream.