Category Archives: productivity

The Zeigarnik Effect and the Force of Incomplete Tasks

Why do unresolved issues linger in our mind, making us ponder them for days on end? Why are cliffhangers so successful in getting viewers to tune in to the next episode? How can we overcome procrastination? These questions can be answered by learning about the psychological concept/theory known as the Zeigarnik effect.

‘Discovered’ by Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik back in the 1920s, the Zeigarnik effect states that we remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

And so, to those questions. It’s easy to see how the Zeigarnik effect could be responsible for the success of suspense as a dramatic device, but for overcoming procrastination? Use the effect to your advantage and start at the simplest, smallest part of your task. After that, the unfinished nature of the larger task will push you toward action.

Beware, though: the effect has been shown to diminish if we don’t expect to do well on the interrupted task (or are otherwise completely not motivated).

via @jonahlehrer

Why Software Development Estimation is Hard: Sea Lions, and Coastal Paths

Among the many valid responses to the Quora question of why software development task estimations are often off by a factor of 2–3, Michael Wolfe, CEO of Pipewise, describes exactly why this is without once mentioning ‘software’ or ‘project’.

Instead, Wolfe eloquently provides undoubtedly the best analogy I’ve ever heard for explaining the difficulty in providing estimates for software projects: a couple of friends planning a coastal hike from San Francisco to Los Angeles and starting their journey.

Their friends are waiting in LA, phone calls have already been made pushing the date back…

Man, this is slow going! Sand, water, stairs, creeks, angry sea lions! We are walking at most 2 miles per hour, half as fast as we wanted. We can either start walking 20 hours per day, or we can push our friends out another week. OK, let’s split the difference: we’ll walk 12 hours per day and push our friends out til the following weekend. We call them and delay dinner until the following Sunday. They are a little peeved but say OK, we’ll see you then. […]

We get up the next morning, bandage up our feet and get going. We turn a corner. Shit! What’s this?

Goddamn map doesn’t show this shit!. We have to walk 3 miles inland, around some fenced-off, federally-protected land, get lost twice, then make it back to the coast around noon. Most of the day gone for one mile of progress. OK, we are *not* calling our friends to push back again. We walk until midnight to try to catch up and get back on schedule.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a new analogy: it’s applying the ideas behind Benoît Mandelbrot’s paper, How Long Is the Coast of Britain?, published back in 1967, to software estimation. Still, it works perfectly.

If you like Wolfe’s writing style and want to read more, he runs a blog called Dear Founder.

Update: And of course, there’s always O.P.C.

Retreating to Study Technology’s Cognitive Impact

Five neuroscientists travelled into deepest Glen Canyon, Utah, to contemplate how technology has changes their behaviour. Some were sceptics and some were believers, and by taking this forced break from their computers and gadgets (there was no mobile phone reception or power) they were determined to find out whether or not modern technology inhibits their “deep thought” and can cause them anxiety.

This bit of self-experimentation and cognitive reflection is a bit too light on the conclusions for my liking, but this article, from The New York Times‘ Unplugged series that examines “how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave”, does have this that’s worth thinking about:

[By day three] the group has become more reflective, quieter, more focused on the surroundings. […]
The others are more relaxed too. Mr. Braver decides against coffee, bypassing his usual ritual. The next day, he neglects to put on his watch, though he cautions against reading too much into it. […]

Mr. Strayer, the believer, says the travelers are experiencing a stage of relaxation he calls “third-day syndrome.” Its symptoms may be unsurprising. But even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions — something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.

“If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential,” Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”

“Third-day syndrome”. I like that, and it rings true. Weekends away to nearby cities don’t do it for me in terms of disengaging and allowing free thought; I need at least four days.

One more comment that was a bit too close for comfort:

Technology has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get information and respond to it? The believers in the group say the drumbeat of incoming data has created a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s ability to focus.

An Ignore List, Setting Schedules and Other Time Management Ideas

Managing time effectively is a matter of cultivating a consistent and deliberate habit through a number of easy steps, says Peter Bregman, suggesting a three-stage process: detailed planning, refocussing (scheduled breaks) and reviewing.

I’ve dabbled with The Pomodoro Technique and GTD and neither have really helped me (granted, I don’t have chronic time-management issues and instead just harbour a desire to be more efficient), and I’m unsure whether Bregman’s suggested technique would help those in need of help.

However, what I did like from Bregman is the idea of creating an ignore list in addition to a to do list, and this brief look at studies showing the importance of creating detailed schedules and plans:

In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe a study in which a group of women agreed to do a breast self-exam during a period of 30 days. 100% of those who said where and when they were going to do it completed the exam. Only 53% of the others did.

In another study, drug addicts in withdrawal (can you find a more stressed-out population?) agreed to write an essay before 5 p.m. on a certain day. 80% of those who said when and where they would write the essay completed it. None of the others did.

If you want to get something done, decide when and where you’re going to do it. Otherwise, take it off your list.

In Praise of Self-Tracking: The Data-Driven Life

It is a natural desire to strive for self-improvement and seek knowledge about oneself, but until recently it has been difficult or impossible to do so objectively and quantitatively.

Now, through self-tracking systems and applications that are becoming prevalent in many of our lives thanks to a number of technological advances and sociological changes, we can, at last, find the answers to questions that were once beyond us.

That is the essence of Gary Wolf’s comprehensive study of the self-tracking phenomenon, looking at how we are heading toward ‘the quantified self’ and a ‘data-driven life’… and what this means.

When the familiar pen-and-paper methods of self-analysis are enhanced by sensors that monitor our behavior automatically, the process of self-tracking becomes both more alluring and more meaningful. Automated sensors do more than give us facts; they also remind us that our ordinary behavior contains obscure quantitative signals that can be used to inform our behavior, once we learn to read them. […]

The goal isn’t to figure out something about human beings generally but to discover something about yourself. Their validity may be narrow, but it is beautifully relevant. Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions. But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever.

via @vaughanbell