So, I’ve been doing a series on Christian productivity for my church’s college and career group. And last night I gave the final message. It was a great experience for me and hopefully helpful for them.
But in preparing for the talks I dug deeper into a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect. It’s something you probably experience all the time. But it explains a lot about why many of us feel so frazzled.
Named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the Zeigarnik Effect describes our tendency to remember uncompleted tasks while being able to let finished tasks slip out of our minds.
If you’ve ever laid awake at night, unable to make yourself stop thinking about an incomplete project, you’ve experienced the Zeigarnik Effect.
This is the reason there’s always a buzz in the back of your head, you can’t focus, and you feel stressed out. Because life in the modern world is a series compiling incomplete tasks. There are always emails to respond to, half-done projects to get back to, phone calls to return, and personal goals we know we should be working on but aren’t.
And our poor brains can’t stop yelling at us to get back to work on all of it!
Right this minute!
Even if it’s 2 am!
The world offers a host of explanations for this phenomenon. Some say it’s an evolutionary quirk, some kind of survival instinct, but I think it’s simpler than that.
Made to Keep Promises
We were created in the image of God.
We were made to show forth what God is like in our attitudes, actions, and character. And God is a promise-keeping God. He always does what He says He will do. And I think our obsession with unfinished tasks is, in part, the nagging of our consciences when we fail to keep our word.
Unfulfilled commitments, even to ourselves, are unfulfilled promises. Yet, to live in the modern world is to be bombarded with constant demands. We constantly have new obligations thrust upon us. They tear at our conscience when we leave them undealt with. So we find ourselves overwhelmed because we feel like are failing everybody all the time!
But what do we do about it?
Productivity Is About Keeping Your Word
First, this is why productivity is so important for believers in Jesus Christ. In fact, the reason I first got into productivity was that I was dropping the ball on commitments. I would tell people I was going to do something and then forget about it. I wasn’t being a person of my word.
So step one is to get organized with systems that allow us to manage the chaos.
- Diligently using our calendars
- Keeping well-tended project and to-do lists
- Maintaining a personal knowledge management system for storing and retrieving important information
These are the bread and butter of getting your life in order. And they are the fulcrums that will pry you out from under the pile of unfulfilled promises.
But the other front we need to attack the problem on is ironically both simpler and way harder.
Second, we need to train ourselves to say “no” to overcommitment. Often we feel like by saying no we are letting people down. But more often by saying “yes” we are guaranteeing we will let them (and our other commitments) down. We can’t do it all. Only God can.
Becoming a person of your word means letting your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” And it’s about structuring your life so that you are actually able to fulfill what you said you would do.