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