Choose to leave a loose end: getting your priorities straight

March 30, 2018

Sometimes we have tasks that need to be done quickly but which, for some reason, we tend not to prioritize.


We know we have to do ‘that’ one, important task but we just want to do ‘this’ (meaning, something else) first. The days pass and we are no closer to getting started with that which soon needs to be completed and, once again, we end up finishing it in a hurry the night before it is due.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can help ourselves to want to choose ‘that’ task before others and get it done well before it is due.


Take out physically instead of writing it down

My good friend Ulla-Lisa told me that in the late afternoon, she takes out, lays out or starts doing whatever it is that she wants to get going with straight away the next morning. Instead of writing the task on tomorrow’s to-do-list before leaving the office, like many people do, she sets the task into motion. As I see it, she leaves a ‘loose end’ consciously in order to make it easier to choose to continue working with it the next time she is back in the same spot or opens her computer again.


The unfinished becomes unmissable

If you have been reading these recurring tips on structure for a while, you might recall the tip I wrote a while back on the Zeigarnik effect – the phenomenon identified by the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik which suggests that it is easier to remember unfinished tasks than completed ones. Well actually, the unfinished ones tend to hang as loose, mental ends in our minds and ‘irritates’ our attention so that we feel an urge to deal with and finish them, and thus metaphorically and mentally tie the ends for our own peace of mind.

This is a phenomenon we can take advantage of and use to get things done.


Do this

If you currently have something you need to complete in the next few days, but find that other tasks steal your attention much too easy, then do this:

Before you leave the office in the afternoon, lay out whatever you want to start with in the morning so that there is no hiding from it. You could open the relevant document or page on your computer or set out the materials you need on your desk. Open the material to the right page so that you ‘land’ straight into the task when you arrive tomorrow morning.

Begin working on the task right now. Start small, really small, but at least start so that you will have mentally focused on the task and thus leave a mental ‘loose end’ when leaving the office. It can be as little as a minute of work and then you stop in the middle of doing something – without putting anything away before leaving.

When you are back at the office (perhaps after a good night’s rest), notice if and how the materials you have left on the desk call for your attention, and if you feel any different about getting the task done.

If it so happens that when you arrive where you need to be to do the task, it no longer has the highest priority at that very moment, then put away the things you had opened or taken out to do the task. Close the documents, remove the icon from the desktop, put away the physical papers or materials, and make it into a to-do-task instead. If you don’t, it will only distract you from what you really and wholeheartedly, given these new circumstances, need to focus on right now.

Remember to only leave one loose end at a time, not several (even if you have lots of tasks that need to get done soon). Having many loose ends simultaneously will only make you feel more stressed, since all loose ends will drain you of mental energy as long as they remain ‘unfinished’, according to the Zeigarnik effect.


Easy to get it right

If you consciously and deliberately leave a loose end you will help yourself get this important task done as soon as you are back to where you left it if we are to trust what Bluma Zeigarnik concluded. It will be easier to get going with what you need to finish and you decrease the risk of getting distracted by other tasks that you could just as well finish another time.


About the author

David StiernholmSUPER STRUCTUREDDavid Stiernholm is a trainer who teaches thousands of people every year in companies, government authorities, organizations and universities how to become more structured and attain a higher degree of personal efficiency.

He is also the author of Super Structured.

“Information overload”, “too much going on”, “full email inbox”, “too much on your plate”, “heavy workload”, “ASAP”, “piles that keep growing”, it has to get better soon… Yes, there are many ways to describe the chaotic life many of us lead at work. But, if we create a better structure at work, we will have more time for what matters most to us and to our business. Super Structured is based on a highly successful training program and is for anyone who wants to create a workday that runs smoother and with greater ease. In short chapters with useful advice and tips.


Comments are closed.

© 2019