Workarounds: Could Getting More Done Relieve Your Stress Levels

Have any work-related stress these days? Imagine doing even more than you already are and winding up both more relaxed and with more energy. Sounds beyond counterintuitive, I know, but bear with me.
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Have any work-related stress these days? Imagine doing even more than you already are and winding up both more relaxed and with more energy. Sounds beyond counterintuitive, I know, but bear with me. What if it were true? What if some of the stress you feel in everyday life were related more to the work you have not done than with the amount of work you actually do?

You have probably noticed that you have more work to do than you could ever hope to get done. Most of us find that along with the daily flood of work comes an increasing amount of stress in our lives. If that's true for you, then perhaps the saving grace is that you are still employed -- having more to do than you can get done is called a job.

To make matters worse, the requirement to do more work with fewer resources and less support has become commonplace. Part of being successful is the ability to weed out the less relevant from the more relevant.

You might find that your list of oh-so-important projects and tasks that you began the month with can fade into the background as new work shows up and external conditions change. That's pretty understandable with all the rapid change these days.

However, some part of your brain may not understand as well as it might. If you have a reliable way of keeping track of what's on your plate along with relevant value if accomplished, then your stress levels may be more easily balanced. However, if you don't have that reliable system, you may find your stress levels growing to the point that some part of you never relaxes. You may find your brain constantly going back to tasks that you have not yet completed. Have you ever found yourself remembering work-related tasks just as you're falling asleep, while in the shower, or while simply trying to enjoy a relaxing evening at home? Sound familiar?

The good news is that your brain remembered; the bad news is that the reminder showed up at an inappropriate time and place. If it shows up when you're trying to relax or focus on something else, it can begin to build a sense of stress. At least part of the unhealthy stress you experience in life may be the result of an emotional response to tasks you feel obligated to perform but have not yet completed.

The principle is known as the Zeigarnik Effect, after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. In 1927 she discovered that people could remember incomplete tasks much better than those that had been finished. As obscure and perhaps inconsequential as it might seem, the Zeigarnik Effect has increasing relevance today as the amount of work-related demands on our time accelerates seemingly every week.

Research psychologists have learned that when we hold things in short-term memory, we have to keep cycling back to them or they seem to disappear. This constant recycling requires cognitive effort, and the more things we have stuffed in our psychic ram, the more effort it takes. As you worry more and more about what has not yet been done, your stress levels increase and you can wind up thinking about a problem at work over an entire weekend or toss and turn all night as the recycling phenomenon keeps coming back to haunt you. One simple finding is that most of us feel the need to complete a task once it has been initiated and that the lack of closure from unfinished work leads to intrusive thoughts.

(For more info on this research, see Baumeister, R.F., & Bushman, B.J., (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature and Greist-Bousquet, S., Schiffman, N. (1992). The effect of Task interruption and closure on perceived duration. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30(1)).

If this sounds all too familiar, what can you do?

One simple but non-obvious solution is to have a complete list of your tasks and commitments that you can review regularly to determine which ones you are actively committed to complete and those that can be relegated to later or even dropped altogether. As my friend David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done" would say, you can only feed good about what you're not doing when you know what it is that you are not doing.

Here's a rather simple approach that you may find useful:

  • Make a complete list of all goals, projects and tasks that you have on your plate. Get everything out of your head and onto some kind of list or system that you can track. Be sure you capture all those "to dos" that spring from your e-mail, as well. You can use anything from simple paper and pencil to one of the many digital tools out there

  • Review that list at least once a week. As you look at each item on the list, ask yourself, "Is this still relevant? What value shows up if I complete this? Is it still worth doing?"
  • If you come to something that no longer matters, consciously scratch it off the list and declare it finished. This will signal your brain to let go of the item and stop reminding you about it at all those inconvenient times.
  • For those items not finished, determine which items you will focus on this week, and then pick from that list as you go through the subsequent days of the week.
  • When you go home for the night, or at least when you go home for the weekend, review the list, make note of what you have already finished along with noting what you are not going to be doing tonight or this weekend.
  • This may seem a little silly to some of you, but when you make conscious determinations of what you are not going to be doing, some part of your brain will relax and let you actually enjoy your time away from the job without having to constantly remind you that you have all these other things you could be doing right now.

    If you want to try something even simpler, try keeping a list of the little things that you could get done that don't have enormous consequence to them and don't require a whole lot of mental energy to get done. I have a list I call "Mind Like Mush." When I'm feeling a bit drained from something that was taxing, I often go to this list and start knocking off the little things. Some part of me notices that I'm getting things done, and with each item I finish, I seem to find a bit more energy that I can use for more complex work later.

    It's kind of like exercise: even though you expend energy exercising, you actually wind up feeling more energized when you're finished. The added benefit is that your brain won't keep reminding you that you have a bunch of little things still to be done.

    If you want more information on how this phenomenon works and how you can set up a system that will work for you, read chapters 14 and 17 in my new book, "Workarounds That Work." And, if you want even more in depth help, get a copy of David Allen's bestselling book, "Getting Things Done." You'll be glad you did.


    If you would like a free chapter of Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work," click here.

    Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can contact Russell by e-mail at