Recent Research and the Zeigarnik Effect

Recently, the link between overwhelm and the Zeigarnik Effect (explained in my book) has become more apparent. There are tantalizing signs of its importance in recent research, which I plan to highlight as it emerges.

There are few writers or researchers who are connecting these dots, due in part to the way the studies are being conducted – for the benefit of academic research, rather than everyday application.

How to Escape the Zeigarnik Effect

Have you ever found yourself unable to fall asleep during a trying time at work? Or distracted in the middle of a conversation or meeting by thoughts about other stuff you still need to do?

If so, you may be a victim of the Zeigarnik Effect. Its exotic name comes from the Russian researcher who discovered it in the 1920’s while observing the behavior of waiters in a restaurant. Their ability to recall pending orders, but not the ones they had just delivered, caught her attention.

The disparity relates to the effect which bears her last name. It’s the nagging feeling you get once you mentally create a “time demand”: an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future. Your subconscious, which stores each one for later retrieval, does more than sit back and wait for you to act. Instead, it begins to ping your conscious mind with a stream of reminders.

If this were to take place on rare occasions, it would be a cute phenomenon. However, if you are someone who is ambitious, you may find the reminders increasing until you start to experience a sense of overwhelm. After all, her research states that the way to get rid of the Zeigarnik Effect is to complete the task. For busy people, it’s impossible – they create hundreds. Like everyone else, they can only finish one at a time.

So, is there an escape? Fortunately, there is, according to recent research conducted at Baylor University.

Dr. Michael Scullin and his team compared two bedtime behaviors in laboratory experiments. Before falling asleep, one group of subjects wrote their to-do list for the next few days. The other recorded the tasks they accomplished during that day. The result? This small change in technique helped the first group fall asleep faster by over 9 minutes. Why did this happen?

To understand the underlying reason, we must visit the University of Florida. Drs. Roy Baumeister and Ed Masicapmo added to Zeigarnik’s research, showing that the effect disappears when a person has a trusted system in place to manage time demands. This makes intuitive sense. There’s no need for your subconscious mind to interfere if it believes that all your tasks are being properly managed.

How does this apply to falling asleep faster? Well, offloading your tasks to a written to-do list is one way to assure your subconscious that you are on top of all your commitments. In other words, it trusts a piece of paper more than your ability to remember. Satisfied, it leaves you alone, allowing you to doze off.

But what if you possess a high IQ, genius-level memory? Can’t that be used? The answer is short but elegant – “Sure… if you happen to be a kid.” While I doubt that any readers of this column are under 12 years old, we should understand why they are an exception. The fact is, they only have a few time demands to recall. Plus, they have teachers, parents, friends, and siblings reminding them what to do.

It’s only later, when they get older, that problems occur. But they aren’t caused by age which is not a factor until their retirement years. Instead, long before then, the challenge is to find a method to cope with the relentless swell in time demands our generation faces.

What else can be used beside paper? Digital devices also work. In addition, some people offload their tasks to other folks, like their children. “Remind me to pick up your cake tomorrow, Junior.”

But the only approach which succeeds in the long term isn’t a single technique or tool but a mindset of continuous improvement, plus specific knowledge of how humans use such tools. Start by getting committed to implementing ongoing upgrades. Then, understand that your choices need to follow a pattern.

While researching the latest edition of my book I found that improvements happen in serial fashion, but they all start with an attempt to use mental reminders. When that technique fails, we graduate to better skills one step at a time, following this sequence.

Level 1 – Memory

Level 2 – Paper Lists of Tasks

Level 3 – Simple Digital Apps

Level 4 – Complex Task Management Apps

Level 5 – Digital Calendars of all Tasks

Level 6 – Administrative Assistants / Autoscheduling Programs

As you look over this list, identify your current level. With this knowledge, you can prepare yourself for the next upgrade – the one that will help you stay abreast of your dreams and aspirations.

However, be aware: the Zeigarnik Effect shows up at any level. It’s a fantastic warning mechanism which lets you know when a change is overdue. Unlike your friends, colleagues and even your conscious mind, it can’t be fooled. It will do its job, preventing you from falling asleep quickly until you wake up to its incessant, nagging call for greater personal productivity.

Sleep and the Zeigarnik Effect

An interesting result: writing your time demands down before going to bed at night cuts down the time it takes to fall asleep. Furthermore, the longer the list the better.

As you may know, the Zeigarnik Effect has to do with that nagging feeling which occurs after you create a time demand. Our subconscious pings our conscious mind with reminders when it believes we might forget them. This leads to feelings of overwhelm.

We have known for some time from studies by Masicampo and Blaumeister that these unwanted nagging reminders go away when time demands are well managed. However, this research shows that making a to-do list before bedtime shortens the time it takes to fall asleep.

By contrast, writing down a list of completed actions has the opposite effect i.e. it takes longer.

I’m in the process of pushing out the paperback version of the second edition of Perfect Time-Based productivity and had to stop what I was doing when I came across this article. I found the original academic paper, read it and slipped in a new paragraph.

If you ever have trouble falling asleep, this one is for you.

Is Time Management Really “Real”, Or Is It Just a Misnomer?

Two years ago I embarked on a journey to answer: “Can time be managed?” and “Is time management truly possible?” Up until then, I had only complained. After all, claims that the phrase “time management is a misnomer” could be heard everywhere. While I habitually echoed the cliché, which sounds plausible when repeated, I felt uneasy… I couldn’t find a shred of proof.

Now, I do have findings to share based on studies of fields as diverse as anthropology and physics.

Discovery 1 — Time can be managed, but only in marginal ways

Chasing down a meme like “time cannot be managed” is tough work. Someone who is trying to justify the statement should do more than sling around clichés. He/she must track down every single definition of the word “time” in order to make sure it cannot be “managed.” It also means testing different meanings of the word “manage” to ensure that all reasonable descriptions are accounted for.

On my journey, I learned that “time” can be thought of in two ways. Either it’s taken to be “physically real” or it’s seen as a “psychological object.”

In the former interpretation, human beings have apparently made a mistake based on our studies of young children and un-contacted tribes. We have confused “Clock and Calendar Time (CCT)” with “event sequences.” CCT, which was invented around the end of the first millennium, is a skill which must be taught, usually to children. The same applies to tribes who simply don’t use the concept.

How do they survive?

They use “event sequences” made up of chains of “before-and-after” descriptions. They acknowledge the permanence of these sequences and describe the past in terms of its relationship to key events, such as the birth of a child.

“Event sequences” cannot be managed in any way. They just are.

However, CCT is constantly being “managed” if we accept a weak definition of the verb “manage”. Instead of equating it with interpretations linked to “control” or “dominate”, we can take it to mean “manipulate, influence, shape, engineer, steer.” When we adapt this particular meaning we discover that there are ways to “manage CCT.”

For example, in the modern world, we have accepted the need to add leap seconds. In the Ethiopian, Chinese, Baha’i, and Islamic calendars a leap year is added to prevent synchronization problems at different intervals.

So, there are ways for societies to “manage” “time”. Unfortunately, an individual can only do so if he/she has the power to set up his/her own calendar, perhaps by living on a desert island. In the rest of the world, we are constrained in our management of CCT by each other.

When we flip over to the alternate definition of time as a “psychological object” we see that a similar limitation applies.

If time is nothing more than a creation of the mind (according to physicists like Albert Einstein) we should expect it to be manageable. After all, products of your imagination should be quite malleable.

In fact, there is historical evidence that it used to be. The invention of time zones went through several stages where cities like Detroit saw dramatic clock changes as the definition matured.

Today, however, there is no such freedom. Theoretically, problems like the Millennial Bug or Y2K Problem should have been fixable by simply setting back our clocks by, say, 99 years. While it would have worked in centuries past, in 1999 it was an unworkable idea which would have led to far greater problems. This particular psychological object has become so rooted in human affairs that we cannot escape its grasp. Only our friends in un-contacted tribes are exempt.

In the future, we may come up with ways to manage time as a psychological object — it’s entirely possible. But once again, it’s a severely limited possibility.

While there are ways to resolve the misnomer by finding ways to “manage” “time” they are extremely minor, living only on the margins. They have little impact on our daily lives.

Discovery 2 — We still want “time management”

However, these truths don’t stop us from trying to improve our time-based productivity. After all, the phrase “time management” was invented in order to express an improvement we, as humans, have been trying to effect ever since the dawn of our existence.

It’s a response to real errors we see taking place every day: late arrivals, forgotten tasks, email overload, multi-tasking, stress, overweight, etc. These are examples of real, human problems which don’t have easy solutions. In lieu of concrete descriptors, we refer to the default problem as one of “time management.” And we want a fix.

In response, history shows that we have assembled a variety of schools of thought. Each of them gives a different meaning to the phrase that far surpasses the literal meaning of “time” or “management.” Now, the phrase “time management” can be taken to mean just about anything, including:

– A set of processes to follow.

– A specific end-result to be achieved.

– The secret of a person’s success.

– The reason for almost any identified failure.

This short list shows that we have granted the phrase a life of its own which has evolved over time. According to criteria set by researchers Geoff Bingham and Kurt Danziger, “time management” also qualifies as a psychological object.

As such, we need to be careful when using the phrase, because they indicate that people engage in what linguists call “language-games.” Over time, a number of different ones have evolved, even as they all sharing a common moniker.

If you observe conversations on the internet you can find well-meaning people belonging to different “language-games” trying to sort out common time management problems. The results are sometimes tragic, at other times comical. Unfortunately, when we can’t see the language-games at play these miscues are inevitable.

Take for example the time scarcity created by Type A individuals. To some, this is a problem to be eradicated.

For Type A’s, it’s a natural outgrowth of their ambitions. They have accepted that being alive means having more commitments than time will allow, forcing them to develop lifelong skills at setting priorities. Just imagine a coaching session between a professional organizer who believes scarcity is bad and a Type A client. Without a shared language-game, they end up in trouble.

Therefore, it’s critical that we account for existing language-games whenever the phrase “time management” is uttered. It’s the only way to appreciate the underlying context(s) being discussed.

Discovery 3 — There are much better ways to solve real problems than “time management”

Here’s a linguistic jujitsu trick we need to learn.

When someone mentions the phrase “time management” we need to determine not only which language-game they are playing, but also which specific problem they are trying to solve.

The fact is, most discussions in this realm surround intractable but practical symptoms of issues a person is trying to fix. The challenge is that, with a limited vocabulary, they only know to utter “time management.”

The recommended martial arts technique is simple. Set aside the issue of “time management”, while helping the other person to apply the best solution to the problem at hand. This calls for top-quality diagnostic skills.

Of course, the best way to empower others is not to diagnose their issues for them, but to teach them how to do so themselves. Once they become skillful, terms like “time management” fall away and more precise terms enter the picture. They accelerate their progress toward the answers they are looking for.

This inquiry into the existence of time management has helped me understand the confusion that slows people’s progress towards their goals. People must be able to get past the tangled question of time management’s existence/ definition in a single, short step. It’s a bypass that’s often necessary if practical solutions to real problems are to be found and implemented.

Click here to download Can Time Be Managed? An inquiry into the foundations of time-based productivity”. Follow me on Twitter — @fwade

Can Time Be Managed? A Deep Dive

can-time-be-managedIn my work here at 2Time Labs, some of the questions I have dismissed with short answers are core to the work we do: Can Time Be Managed? Does Time Management Exist? Is the Phrase “Time Management” a Misnomer?

These are more than esoteric issues.

Each year, thousands of research pages are issued on this topic. Remarkably, few bother to define the term and only one or two dare question the very existence of the phenomenon of time management.

Up until now, no-one has labored through the literature to answer it.

This special, free report may be a one-of-a-kind – the first attempt to tackle the question from multiple angles, using the lens of a variety of disciplines. Philosophy, psychology, physics, linguistics, business management… they have all been explored in this journey.

Join me as I explore all corners of knowledge pertaining to this topic to arrive at answers all may not agree with, but does reflect the view of an unlikely band of theorists whose views have never been assembled beside each other.

Download your complimentary copy below.

Discover the science of time management [Research]

Here’s a new way to discover the research data behind time management – especially the stuff that’s most recent. Simply follow my hashtag “#scienceoftimemanagement” on Twitter. (Sometimes it shows up without the hashtag – just “scienceoftimemanagement.”)

It’s simple. I have two Twitter accounts – @2TimeLabs and @fwade. The first one sticks to the scientific findings I have discovered in academic papers that have been rigorously peer-reviewed. These studies typically involve hundreds of people and build (one step at a time) on the foundation of prior studies. They are very different from bloggers who wake up in the morning with good ideas and turn them into SEO-optimized, Top 10 posts before lunch-time!

The second one, @fwade, is may daily account that send out all manner of content related to time management. It picks up the best feeds from around the internet and RT’s them, while adding on the best content I can find on a daily basis. You won’t find me tweeting about my non-existent cats, or the reasons why Trump shouldn’t be elected President. It all about one topic – time-based productivity and all its variations.

Enjoy them both by visiting their pages and I’ll see you over there.



Why Are There So Few Studies of Time Demand Completion?

iStock_000004136298XSmallWhy have there been so few studies of what happens to time demands after we create them? In this post, I go hunting for some answers.

This week, I uncovered a great article written by Judith Ouellette and Wendy Wood. It’s entitled “Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior.”

Like many other academic articles, it has an inimidating title that seems obscure but the text is quite readable once the new terms it uses are understood. The most important, for the post, is what the authors refer to as a “conscious intention.” For all intents and purposes, it’s the same as a time demand.

Their article confirms one of the ideas I include in my book: that our daily actions can be divided into two types.
Type 1) Habits we perform with a level of automaticity that requires little energy.
Type 2) Conscious intentions that require explicit thought (i.e. time demands.)

In a follow-up diary study  led by Dr. Wood, approximately 33-50% of all daily behaviors are habits. The rest are conscious intentions.

I did a quick search to see how many articles mentioned the original paper and the number came to over 1600 since it was published in 1998. By academic standards, it’s quite popular.

However, it’s interesting to see that very little research has been conducted on conscious intentions, while there has been a great deal of research on habits. That strikes me as odd.

It appears that the average working professional cares more about conscious intentions than habits. By their very nature, habits take care of themselves without much explicit effort. For example, we brush our teeth without thinking about it, day and day out. What we care about are the tasks we must complete each day and the amount of time we have to do them in. We are concerned about these conscious intentions because they are a primary and essential step we take to fulfil every single one of our goals.

This concern may be translated into a question that uses the language of the paper: “How can I effectively convert a high percentage of conscious intentions into positive actions?”

In answering this question, academics seem to have dropped the ball. My research shows that when it comes to conscious intentions, they seem to be more interested in peripheral questions such as “What are the factors that go into creating conscious intentions?”, “Why do people form the goals they do?” and “What are the obstacles people face in fulfilling their goals?”

These questions are important, but there are more basic questions that are not being researched, such as: “How do people process conscious intentions? How do they navigate time limits and due dates?” These are questions that are closer to our concern for converting intentions into action.

Why aren’t these questions being asked and answered by researcher?

1. Academics aren’t learning from other fields

A light reading of recent research in fields such as quantum physics and philosophy reveal that there is a growing concern that without human involvement, there is no such thing as time. When the existence of time itself is being questioned, it’s a bit strange to continue exploring “time management” or (even worse) “time control.” Yet, that’s what researchers in the field of time-based productivity have done for years (including yours truly.) Without adequate input of knowledge of other fields, a discussion about “time management” (if taken literally) is actually a bit of a fool’s errand.

2. Academic funding is skewed

The academy’s preoccupation with habits and behaviors isn’t echoed by the public, who only think about changing habits or behaviors now and then – hardly as often as they think about conscious intentions and time limits.

This vast difference of interests has meant that little academic research has made its way to the adult learner, who picks up a book, listens to a webinar and sits in a classroom in order to learn how to navigate an unyielding increase in conscious intentions. The majority of time-based productivity learning makes no reference or use of recent academic research. Most of the content used is based on the experience of one person, plus those who follow his/her advice. This falls far short of research standards: it’s all “anecdata” a term for stories taken as fact mentioned on the Harvard Business Review blog.

The reason for this mismatch between the academy and daily reality may be that there is a lot of funding flowing to habit research due to the high cost of destructive practices like smoking and drug addiction. Getting rid of bad habits actually saves lives, so a breakthrough in this area has high stakes, which attracts society’s attention. Boosting one’s time-based productivity isn’t as fraught with health risks.

3. Academics Aren’t Skilled Enough (as Individuals)

Another possible explanation is that academics who study time management (mostly psychologists), are simply not equipped to answer the common questions people have. As I show in Perfect Time-Based Productivity, in the moments after a conscious intention/time demand is created, humans follow a defined process, without exception. Although these processes are similar in design, they are also idiosyncratic and unique.

The uniqueness derives from the fact that these processes are self-created. Their effectiveness varies widely between individuals in ways that are barely understood at this time – the research that should give us basic answers just isn’t being performed.

The skills these researchers are lacking do exist, but they are to be found in management or engineering schools in fields such as simulation, Business Process Management (BPM) or Total Quality Management (TQM). They all study the flow of tangible objects in processes and systems – but they don’t routinely study psychological objects like time demands. As far as I can tell, psychologists aren’t taking these classes to learn these skills which are essential to analyzing the flow of time demands in human affairs. By the same token, engineers aren’t flocking to Psych 101 so that they can learn how to model ways in which psychological objects are processed.

Only a multiskilled approach would work. Unfortunately, these are the studies that are the toughest to perform well,  often posing huge obstacles to graduate students who must pick a field of study. This is just not the shortest or simplest path to take.

Hopefully, this state of affairs will change and we aren’t completely stuck. The stresses on professionals around the world are increasing, and we need to do more to help them attain the level of productivity they desire.

Here’s a Researcher Who Spent a Year Tackling One Productivity Technique Per Week

ne new techniqueThe ultimate Lifehacker is not someone who scours the Internet looking to find random tips, tricks and shortcuts. Instead, we should all take a leaf out of Melanie Wilson’s blog, in which she conducted a year-long experiment in 2013, tackling and implementing one new improvement technique each week.

Her approach was simple. Each week she singled out a popular or well-defined productivity hacks and tried to make it work, faithfully reporting the results back to her readers. By the end of the year, she’d tackled 46 consecutive hacks, ending the year with a multi-week experiment: writing a nonfiction book in 21 days.

The list of hacks she tested read like a who’s who of guru-driven advice ranging from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, to Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow to a number of others that you probably have never heard of, such as “David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner,” “The Time Warrior” and “Gamification.” While she does have affiliate links set up with a few of the products she’s testing, she’s hardly advertising.

Instead, she breaks each post into the same four sections, as she did in week 2 when she assessed the “Covey’s Quadrants” technique. In that week the first three sections were captioned:
– How Covey’s Quadrants Saved My Sanity This Week
– How The 12 Week Year Made Me Crazy This Week
– Did Covey’s Quadrants Help Me Get Things Done?
In the fourth and final section she moved onto the next hack she planned to assess:

– The Productivity Approach I’ll Be Using for Week 3.

Here, she invited readers to join her in trying out the technique reviewed the following week. Her followers do make the occasional comment, but this is primarily a one-woman experiment, all based on her first-hand experience.

On a recent podcast in which I interviewed Melanie, I made the comment that it’s like watching a reality show, in which she unfolds a brand new episode each week. As I followed the course of events from one week to the next, I found myself with a nervous feeling of anticipation. Would she find the perfect technique that meets all her needs? Would she get to the end of the year and conclude that Lifehacking is just a self-indulgent waste of adult time? Was she going to refute everything I knew to be true from my own experience, invalidating a lifetime of personal lifehacking?

This is the power of doing real-life testing… on a real life. You’ll probably find yourself, like I did, flipping to the techniques you have known and and tried, wondering if her experiences matches up with your opinions. As she surprises you with some of her findings, you’ll find that it’s hard to argue with each post. Why? Because it’s factual. Like a good researcher, she doesn’t make leaps in logic, telling the reader that they need to follow the systems that she uses, or doesn’t use. She never concludes that her experience is one everyone should share – she sticks to the format you’d expect of someone who works in a lab every day wearing a white coat. Like Sgt. Joe Friday she’s just following the data.

This sets her blog apart from so many self-improvement, time management and productivity posts making their way around the Internet. Many of them consist of no more than untried, untested and un-researched opinions in which authors don’t bother to provide any evidence for their suggestions. They just repeat the stuff once read in a book or blog, without offering any new perspectives, content or information. After they are done, others reply with their opinions, leading to a round of lightweight dialog or heated disagreement, after which everyone gets tired and goes home, none the better.

The lifehacking community needs more people to do what she’s doing – basing their advice and conclusions on empirical data. Whether the data comes from the researcher herself, or from other trusted fieldworkers, we need to be informed by more than the amateur blogger who wakes up in the morning with rehashed and random ideas for improvement.

This would take us out of the rut we’re in at the moment in time-based productivity – where the over-abundance of Top Ten Lists are choking a readership that’s becoming tired of seeing the same old tips repeatedly recycled. Her blog is a sparkling example of what can be done with some hard legwork, which is where all breakthrough thinking originates. I hope she helps take Lifehacking back to a time when it was about sharing stuff that works based on factual experience, rather than empty suggestions designed to do little more than generate SEO traffic, Likes and Re-tweets.

Visit her blog, Psychowith6 and listen to her interview after you have viewed some of her posts from the past year. Prepare to be engaged by the vitality of a real-life, first-hand experience.