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The Link Between Unfinished Tasks and Wellness

Dear Fellow Working Woman

I invite you to participate in a short survey. Please mentally check off any of the scenarios below that you have experienced:

  • Before leaving for work you have already begun thinking about your to-do list for the day. And, of course…it’s a mile long.
  • You arrive at work and your inbox greets you with an overwhelming amount of emails to manage, even after deleting the ones you can ignore. Thanks, inbox.
  • It’s time to hunker down and work on one of your important projects. You are in the initial phase of working on it, and you are interrupted by one of the million commonly experienced concentration killers [co-workers “dropping in” to chat, desktop clutter calling your name to clean it up, your phone going off, background noise, and more emails, of course].
  • You have yet to finish your important project and it’s nearing the end of the workday. You receive a message that there is another top priority project in need of your expertise. This feels impossible. Does the pressure ever end?
  • It’s the end of the workday and you have unfinished tasks. You get home and you are unable to fully detach. You continue to think about these tasks which interrupts your time for leisure and self-care [spending time with the kids, cooking dinner, exercising, reading, and all the other “I don’t even remember what that feels like anymore” activities]. Can you ever catch a break?
  • A new day begins. Due to stress related to unfinished tasks you did not get a good night’s sleep. You are tired, the kind of tired that no amount of coffee can cure.
  • Before leaving for work you have already begun thinking about your to-do list for the day. And, of course…it’s still a mile long.  

Did you check at least one of these boxes? Yeah, me too!

It should come as no surprise that recent occupational stress research has shown that our well-being is negatively impacted when work tasks are left unfinished. We can expect things like being in a bad mood, sleep impairment, continuous and distressing thoughts about unfinished work,  and difficulty engaging in leisure and self-care time when we can’t do it all. Put simply, we aren’t able to unwind or detach from work!

According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unfinished or interrupted tasks contribute to mental tension. This psychological phenomenon was named after psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik who began conducting research in the early 1900s after being inspired by her professor, Kurt Lewin. He observed that waiters were better able to recall the details of unpaid orders, and once they were paid, the details could no longer be recalled. Completion of the task, then, is how we reduce the tension. I know, it’s easier said than done!

Below are four strategies for checking off your to-do list:

  1. Embrace a “divide and conquer” approach by dividing large tasks into smaller, more achievable sub-tasks. As part of your approach, keep in mind that you do not want to leave tasks incomplete. Be selective with your time and energy. It may be helpful to plan for one week’s time – a window that gives room for flexibility but doesn’t send your tasks into the abyss. And, lastly, prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.
  2.  Reduce (or eliminate) distractions. When it comes to technology, consider turning off notifications (for emails, texts, social media, and news). Many of these notifications serve as reminders about what we need to do! Additionally, create a work environment that promotes productivity. For example, put a “Will Return” clock sign on your door and choose the time you are open for visitors (even if you are working inside!), wear noise-canceling headphones, and keep your workspace clean.
  3. Optimize flow experiences. Flow is a deep, rewarding state of immersion while doing something you enjoy (which at work might be reflecting on a solution or doing research for a project). It’s what happens when you look up at the clock and realize that a significant amount of time has passed without realizing it! To get further in the flow state, one of the best things you can do is give your undivided attention to one clearly defined task.
  4. Take movement breaks. Get up and walk around, stretch, play a yoga video and get your mat out if you have space. A five minute walk every hour has shown to improve health and wellness. Additionally, breaks restore motivation and promote creativity – both of which help increase productivity.

Now, envision how your life might change if you were to use these strategies:

  •  Before leaving for work you have already begun thinking about your to-do list for the day. And, of course…it’s short, reasonable, and attainable. This feels good.
  • You arrive at work and your inbox greets you with an overwhelming amount of emails to manage, even after deleting the ones you can ignore. No thanks, inbox. I have other tasks that are my priority in this moment … I’ll get to you later as planned.
  • It’s time to hunker down and work on one of your important projects. You are in the initial phase of working on it, and you are interrupted by one of the million concentration killers. Time to take a five-minute break and warm up for flow.
  • You have yet to finish your important project and it’s nearing the end of the workday. You receive a message that there is another top priority project in need of your expertise. No worries. You finished what you set out to accomplish today. Before leaving work, you revisit your weekly plan and make adjustments based on your time, energy, and priorities.
  • It’s the end of the workday and you don’t have unfinished tasks. You get home and you are able to fully detach. Who is this new me? I like her!
  • A new day begins. You slept great and you wake up feeling energized. Maybe women can do it all, just not all at once.
  • Before leaving for work you have already begun thinking about your to-do list for the day. And, of course…you can handle it because you’ve got this.

Sincerely,

Jessica (working mom and task-tackler, extraordinaire!)

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