Many of us have been taught the importance of honoring every commitment. While a noble principle, hidden within it is a trap—one that impedes our ability to be productive.
Productive people do the opposite: they live with the chaos of incomplete tasks.
While counterintuitive, the most productive among us pluck one task from the chaos and focus on it completely until they get the job done.
This is why they're successful.
The next time you find yourself swirling in the chaos of your to-do list, ask yourself,
What is the one thing I can do that will make everything else on my to-do list easier or even unnecessary?
That's the task you should be working on.
Gary Keller, author of The One Thing, gave this example on Tim Ferriss's podcast:
I come home, I pull into the garage. What's the one thing I could do with my wife when I walk in the door, such that by doing it everything else for the rest of the night will be easier or unnecessary? The answer is go find her and kiss her. And it's actually that simple.
Consider what you need to accomplish. You can probably immediately identify one or two urgent tasks. Pick one and execute.
This might be challenging for conscientious people that want to honor every commitment. Unfinished business never sits well, regardless of how paralyzed they can become by indecision.
The nagging feeling of incompletion is known as the Zeigarnik effect. Discovered in 1927 by Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, she was initially inspired by her professor, Kurt Lewin, who noticed cafe waiters remembered incomplete tabs more efficiently than paid bills.
We tend to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed duties.
Our minds remain fixated on an unfinished task, which can result in mental and physical unease. We're only freed from the burden of a task once it's been completed.
This makes scheduling work sessions essential to a productive workflow. You're freed from the Zeigarnik effect once you've documented your tasks. The nagging feeling disappears.
Your conscientious brain gives you permission to focus on the thing that matters most right now.
Mono-tasking can feel miraculous. Really, it just takes practice.