In Project Management

Calculating the Cost of Unfinished Business

So, I’m sitting here writing this blog. But actually, the truth is I’m supposed to be doing something else! I’ve left something (quite a few things?) unfinished, and those things are distracting me even while I’m trying to do this.

If this strikes a chord – even just a little – then read on.

We live in a multi-tasking society. We’re supposed to be able to juggle tasks, produce live-feed social media updates while we’re listening to a conference, and respond to emails pretty much 24/7. But whatever we’re doing, we risk feeling overwhelmed by the things we’re not doing. If we switch tasks to satisfy our guilt about a ’greater priority’, then it takes us 20 minutes to regain our focus on what we were doing in the first place. Is multi-tasking the answer? Do we just need to get better at it?

Research shows that the people that believe they can multi-task most effectively are in fact those least capable of doing so (i). These are the people that are easily distracted, have poor impulse control and should probably just do one thing at a time.

Brains are a limited resource

Neuroscience has shown us that the brain is a finite resource and can only focus on one conscious task at a time. By switching quickly from one task to another, we use up valuable and limited brain energy – not very efficient and likely to lead to mistakes. If we’re doing anything that needs thought, then we have to do these things singly, and sequentially.

So what about the nagging voices reminding us about all those other things we have to do?

To make us feel better, this has a name. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect (ii), and is caused by humans being wired to finish things they’ve started. Our subconscious won’t let go of these things and keeps reminding us about unfinished business – fuelling our need to flit unproductively from task to task. If you’ve ever been woken in the night by your brain reminding you about something you’ve forgotten to do, then you know this is true. Your brain is keeping track.

The value of planning

This is one of the most fundamental foundations of project management process. By committing a task to paper (or the computer), by splitting it into the practical activities that need to be achieved, and planning these, our nagging voices can be quietened and our guilty feelings calmed. Research by Masicampo and Baumeister (iii) showed that you don’t need to finish something to banish the Zeigarnik Effect:

“Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended—allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease.”

Whilst this profoundly supports project management principles, it operates at all levels. A simple ’to do’ list achieves the same effect, as do online tools such as ’Trello’ or ’Remember the Milk’.

It seems the truth is that whilst an understanding of emotions and behaviours is critical to any initiative, we badly need the process too.





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