I spend a lot of time speaking to clients about keeping on top of their workload.
In coaching sessions, in workshops, over coffee… the topic frequently turns to feelings of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, tasks and targets that come their way.
Make a list.
The act of writing down things that need to be done can have a very positive impact on how we manage our focus and attention. This intuitive suggestion is backed up by research that demonstrates that when our minds are still in goal-attainment mode, our attempts at completing unrelated tasks is impaired.
But by making a plan, we interrupt this goal-attainment mode and are able to focus on other tasks with improved attention and focus.
Masicampo and Baumeister (2011) studied this effect and make the point that:
The human mind is remarkably persistent in its pursuits, often even disturbingly so. Intrusive thoughts remind people of their unfulfilled goals, including to the point of interfering with other tasks. The present results, however, suggest an alternative possibility. By planning for their goals, people can better manage their multiple pursuits.
A simple example?
How many times have you experienced the distracting inner monologue that goes “Don’t forget to pack my passport….don’t forget to pack my passport”? You’re basically stuck in goal-attainment mode to find and pack your passport. It’s annoying and distracting and can really make focusing on arguably more important tasks difficult.
You are, in effect, spending precious cognitive resources “remembering to remember”, which isn’t helpful at all. Meanwhile, whatever else you’re trying to do is done with less than full attention – task quality or even completion may suffer.
By writing down the task “Pack passport” (ideally as part of a list of related tasks), you free up this cognitive resource to focus on the next thing you need to do. Masicampo and Baumeister again:
Apparently, a plan reduces the amount of thoughts and attention that are typically recruited in service of an unfulfilled goal. Thoughts of an incomplete goal will not interfere with current concerns so long as a plan has been made to see the goal through later on.
Productivity author David Allen has been writing about this since 2001 and hit a nerve with his bestseller “Getting Things Done”. One key take-away from this book is the need to free up what Allen refers to as “psychic RAM” (attention) by making lists of what you need to do.
(Obviously, there’s a lot more to the book than this! Here’s a useful summary)
Whether on paper, in a notebook, or in a complex online or electronic application, keeping a list of your commitments and tasks allows you to stop focusing on remembering and do more doing.
A plan increases one’s odds of attaining a goal and simultaneously reduces the cognitive activities that promote the goal. By suspending cognitive activity, one can minimize competition and reduce the potential for distraction and interference.
Which is surely a more attractive option?
Stuff to do? Time to make a list!
Allen, D (2001) Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Penguin Putnam. (Link)
Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011). Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4):667-83 (Link)