Sometimes the feeling of burnout creeps in under the radar. There’s the random thought that shows up in the middle of dinner, while driving home, or in the shower. It’s something that “has” to be done, and it prevents you from attending to whatever is happening right now. Left unattended, those thoughts can steal your ability to be present in the moment and burden you with the fear that you’ll forget. However, there’s a quick way to put those thoughts at bay and return to enjoying the moment.
The Zeigarnik Effect
Quite simply, the things we don’t get done are remembered more strongly than the things we do. This bias is called the Zeigarnik effect. We’re wired to pay more attention to the incomplete thought or action than the complete one. It’s no wonder then that people at the end of their life are more focused on the things they didn’t do (or complete) than the things they did. This powerful effect operates on us even if we’re unaware of it. It’s the driver behind these random thoughts and tasks that interrupt our consciousness while we’re doing other things.
There is, however, an out to the Zeigarnik effect – at least in the context of keeping these random thoughts from interrupting our flow. It’s to capture the thought in a way we’re sure will result in eventually closing it.
Old School Reminders
We’ve all probably written notes to ourselves, and most of us have “to-do” lists scattered on our desks. It’s the old-school way that we have to “ensure” that things get done. At the same time, we’ve probably all experienced the note getting lost, buried in another file, or slowly slipping into oblivion. The old-school approach to writing to-do lists and crossing items off as they get done is still an often-used and valid approach today. However, we’ve got a set of options that are more useful than the old-school reminder.
Today, nearly all of us travel with personal communications devices in the form of smartphones, which keep our calendars, allow us to access email, and connect us with our contacts. A simple approach that builds on the old school to-do lists is to keep an electronic one where the paper can’t disappear. Alternatively, if you don’t want another application, you can send yourself email messages with reminders for things to do. Both approaches, while valid improvements over paper lists, don’t solve another important problem.
Remind Me When
To-do lists, whether electronic or paper, aren’t typically prioritized. There are no due dates or ways to know which things need to be pulled off the list next – particularly when you’re distracted by life. However, just like a calendar reminder can be an important tool for preventing us from missing a meeting, reminders can now be scheduled to remind us not just what we need to do but when. The old-school method is to put these on your calendar and to leverage the calendar reminder functionality to alert us when we need to pay attention to something.
A better, more modern approach is to tell your favorite electronic personal assistant to set a reminder for you. Siri, Alexa, and OK Google are all happy to set a reminder for you – for a specific time. If you need to call a daughter-in-law to wish her good luck before an interview, you can get a reminder. If you need to water the plants when you get home, you can get a reminder.
Trust and Letting Go
The good news is that once you learn to trust that you’ll get the reminders when you need them, you’ll be able to let go of these random thoughts, focus on being in the moment, and not feel like you’re dropping things. If you’re meeting your own personal expectations that you’re doing a good job, you’ll avoid that nasty feeling of burnout.