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.

Why You Must Boost Your Temporal Intelligence Quotient

This article was written for the Jamaica Gleaner, but it shares some of the research I have been doing on what it takes to boost productivity in entire countries. In particular, I have focused on developing countries which can’t simply take prescriptions from other countries and apply them blindly.

 

We may laugh along with our leaders about our personal productivity and constant overwhelm, but those who have worked in developed countries know that top organizations take time seriously. It’s no coincidence. Corporate success relies on individuals who execute brilliantly, never run late and don’t forget to do their tasks.

But here in Jamaica, we are perplexed. We want the crime-free, growth opportunities that occur in a strong economy built on high-performing companies. Yet, when pressured, we continually excuse the fact that we are individually slack. For example, almost no-one complained when every meeting of the 2017 Jamaican Parliament started late.

Instead, tardiness is met with a joke. The brave few who insist on timeliness are sidelined as “anal” as boards, teams, and cabinets, tolerate behaviors that keep us mediocre. When this vibe is amplified across society, contributing to mayhem and murder, we scratch our heads: “What’s wrong with THOSE people?”

Nothing.

They are simply echoing low standards we all indulge in, even when we know we’d have to give them up if we ever migrated to a developed country.

Imagin – a Jamaican?

A few years ago at a U.S. Conference, I listened in agony as the top organizer explained why they needed to check my credentials twice before inviting me to speak. “We just had to ask”, she shared, “is he for real? Who would imagine that someone in Jamaica knows something about time management?”

Unfortunately, we have collectively earned this suspicion. Our economy hasn’t grown since the 1960’s – a case study for stagnation, resistant even to above-average outside investment. In terms of our macro-productivity, we fight to stay a step above last place among countries in the hemisphere.

But the conference organizer was no economist. She was talking about the lack of “micro-productivity” visitors see upon landing…”Jamaica Time.” It’s why they book two different taxis from their hotel to the airport, “just in case.”

We can rescue our reputation with a focus on a locally defined Temporal Intelligence Quotient (TemQ). It would help us understand the extremes: the Bolt-like performance seen in the world’s best companies versus our sloppy, everyday mediocrity. It could also provide us with universal targets to aim for, whether we happen to be an individual workman, CEO or Supreme Court judge.

For example, our Prime Minister could declare an “Arrive on Time Week.” Such a challenge would push us to discover and practice industrial engineering techniques needed everywhere in our economy to meet Vision 2030 and the productivity problems it describes.

Until then, how can your company use TemQ right away? Here are three suggestions.

Step 1 – Establish Time Usage Outcomes

Professionals with high TemQ set clear intentions for each hour of the day. A high percentage of their plans are effective, which means that they:

– use mobile, digital planning tools.

– create a daily schedule which includes travel and recovery times.

– insert buffer periods for interruptions and other unexpected events.

– track their time usage to effect improvements.

By contrast, individuals with low TemQ are hapless creatures of random impulses and miscues. They are often seen as a very busy but produce little of value as they bounce from one fascinating, “shiny object” to another.

Step 2 – Highlight Errors in Task Execution

As a professional climbs the corporate ladder and adds more to-dos, their productivity is challenged in new ways. Each increase brings them closer to a recurrence of old symptoms they thought they had overcome, such as forgetting important commitments, seeing tasks too long or missing due dates.

The person with low TemQ won’t even notice these mild issues until they turn into crises. However, their counterparts remain eternally vigilant and see these early signs of trouble.

Step 3 – Develop Meta-Skills

High TemQ individuals don’t panic when such unwanted symptoms pop up. Instead, they realize that they need an upgrade and go about diagnosing their habits, practices, and apps in a systematic way. In other words, they demonstrate the meta-skills needed to build added capacity – the only approach which keeps up with a continuously increasing workload.

Unfortunately, low TemQ professionals get stuck and never improve, slipping into a mindset which partly explains our stagnant productivity. After all, if we aren’t actively expanding our individual TemQ, why should our companies thrive and our economy grow?

Ecuadoreans had a similar challenge, estimating that lateness costs them 4.3% of their GDP. In response, they launched a national tardiness campaign.

The good news is that, unlike our Intelligence Quotient (IQ), we can all easily begin to improve our TemQ with practical improvements. There’s no reason for us to continue joking about a matter which has sharp life-or-death consequences. It’s time to invest, on a personal level, in the productive Jamaica we want to become.

 

 

Recent answers to questions on Quora

As you may know, Quora is a question and answer website where people ask specific questions and receive answers from the general public, some of whom are experts.

Since January 2016, I have been answering a number of questions in depth on different topics related to the work we do at 2Time Labs. Here is a sampling of the answers provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Gain Control Over Your Data with The Informed Self

Informed Self

We live in a world in which we receive a lot of data, and behind it there’s an even greater avalanche promised. How do we make sense of it all? And who has the time?

App designers and developers who have found ways to gather this new data need to take a step further and teach us – the users – how to gain important insights without devoting our lives to sorting through mountains of information.

In the third and last piece of the manifesto for The Notified Self, I focus on a few of these skills. They are fast becoming a professional requirement for lives in the modern world where new sensors are giving us unprecedented access to data about ourselves and the world around us.

Now, we need to develop these hitherto unforeseen skills to merely keep up, a critical aspect of the equation that software and wearable companies seem to have overlooked.

Visit my article on Medium – How to Use Data-Driven Insights to Accomplish the Informed Self.

Exploring a New Definition – “The Warned Self”

Warned SelfI just posted a followup article on Medium that addresses the second component of The Notified Self.

It’s called “The Warned Self” and it’s all about creating alarms which alert you when a part of your life has become problematic.

As you can imagine, having this aspect of your life properly constructed can deeply enhance your peace of mind, preventing you from having to continually look over your shoulder.

The article is entitled How to Set Up “The Warned Self” to Protect Your Peace of Mind.

Introducing The Notified Self

Notified Self - 2Time LabsI just released a new post on Medium about notifications, interruptions and notifications that will occupy the attention of 2Time Labs for the next several months.

It’s a new concept called “The Notified Self” – the vision of a professional who is perfectly notified by the digital ecosystem formed by his/her devices, apps, platforms and programs. It’s the logical next step after the Quantified Self (QS).

In other words, now that all this new data is available from QS, how does it need to be managed in order to benefit the user? Or in other words, how do we focus our attention on the data so we don’t become overwhelmed?

Click here to see my long form post on how this problem needs to be tackled with respect to Interruptions. It’s the first part of a three part series. The second part on The Warned Self is here.

If this a topic you already have an interest in, it might be an opportunity to apply to the next InnerLab.

The Challenge of Developing Time Management Skills in College

 

 

How is it that the above graphic encapsulates the past few months I spent writing Perfect Time-Based Productivity – A Professional Approach? (The book is 90% complete and will be released in September on Kindle.) This graphic is a perfect example of some of what I had to do to bring it to this point. It shows:

  • How I filled some huge gaps in knowledge that counter the prevailing wisdom. For example, college students arrive on campus with skills they are already using to manage their time, yet the majority of orientation programs designed to help them skip over this fact, leaving them with little or none of the specific assistance they really need. Researchers aren’t clear on this point so I had to push the issue in my book – arguing that if ALL the research showing that incoming freshman have some skills, and NONE of the research showed they lack all skills, that many researchers were simply incorrect in their starting assumptions. Of course, students know that they wouldn’t be in college if they didn’t have some productivity skills. Duh.
  • Why people are so confused, and give confusing advice in the area of time-based productivity. Search YouTube for videos on “Why time management doesn’t exist.” This year alone, they have been rolling out one after another emphasizing a fact that many already understand, including many incoming freshmen. People who try to manage (or control) time fail from the start – just try to video someone “managing their time,” show it to another person and ask them what’s going on in the film. Instead, we need to shift our attention to managing a psychological object I have labelled a “time demand.” Once you get the hang of seeing them, the confusion lifts.
  • The value of scientific research. I have researched a number of universities and their time management websites designed to help students. They are a bit embarrassing on a whole. They simply haven’t kept up with the most recent books on the topic which don’t happen to come from academia. Within academia there have been some fantastic insights published, but they happen to reside in numerous fields. Psychology. Industrial engineering. Management. Adult Learning. Philosophy. Multidisciplinary research is very hard to conduct within university environments. A college adviser who needs to pull together some time management content for incoming students simply doesn’t have time to read 100 papers. Instead, they’ll just visit another college’s page and do some linking. (The Stanford page on time management for students is quite popular.)

These are just a few of the concepts I have wrestled into my book. To sign up for early notification including free launch bonuses, visit my book’s website and join the list for further information.

Who Cares What Time You Come to Work?

A few years ago, I remember talking with a friend who was telecommuting and saving an hour each way in traffic.  At first, it sounded great!  That is, until I heard about the electronic snooping, keystroke recording, logging and clicking in, and webcams that were used to track whether or not she was really working or goofing off.

It sounded worse than working in the office.

A couple of companies have moved in completely the opposite direction, and given their employees complete freedom to set their own hours.  What’s remarkable is that these companies are are well-known national retailers:  Best Buy and the Gap.

Not only are they allowing their employees the freedom to do this, but in a recent study of the results at Best Buy, those who chose to set their own hours were found to be taking better care of their health, experiencing less work-family conflict and reduced turnover (from 11% to 6%.)

While this is good news, it would be interesting to know what the impact might be on the productivity of the salespeople who are the targets of the ROWE program. (ROWE stands for “Results Only Work Environment.”)  That would truly get the attention of forward-looking companies.

What caught my attention, however, was the fact that there was a control group that did not sign up for the ROWE program.  It made me think that there might be some who are just not interested in that much freedom, and just want to collect a paycheck for doing a certain amount of work.

It also made me think that the company would do well to give their employees in the ROWE program an opportunity to upgrade their time management skills. Simply giving employees the ability to manage their own time does not necessarily mean that they are more effective.

In fact, giving them more freedom would make things more difficult for anyone who must now make a number of new decisions about how they schedule their time, for the very first time.  Without higher skills, they could easily find that their productivity drops.

This isn’t as unusual as it sounds.  Whenever we undergo major life changes, it’s often the case that a review and upgrade of our personal productivity is required, just to be as productive as we were before the change occurred.

For example, I moved my place of residence over the weekend to an older residence with a gorgeous view of the Jamaican interior.  As beautiful as the view is, moving has always caused a dip in my productivity as habits that were prompted by the physical environment need to be re-crafted from scratch.

The effect of these major life changes, whether they be a relocation or a ROWE program, is tremendous, and they deserve to be respected as such.  It’s a good time to revisit our time management systems to see whether or not they can, in fact, hold up.

(The picture above was taken yesterday morning, our first.)