Always starting new tasks or projects, but never seem to finish them? Helen Foster dives into this modern-day condition and how it may be affecting all areas of your health.
I have a lovely yellow wall in my garden. One wall. The rest of the walls are bare plaster as I decided halfway through painting to clear up some leaves and never went back.
My to-do list for the blogs I write is full of important tasks I start but don’t finish because I’ve read about another vital job I must immediately do instead. Add this to an ever-lengthening Netflix queue of shows I’m halfway through…
I’m certainly not the only person to have this issue. It even has a name – Magpie Syndrome, as, like me, magpies have a reputation for being distracted by new and shiny things.
The problem is my list of half-finished tasks has started to keep me up at night.
This doesn’t surprise psychologist Patrea O’Donoghue.
Unfinished business will eat you up at night
“Unfinished tasks will keep popping up in your brain,” she explains. “When you start a task, you open a loop in your mind. When you finish that task, your brain closes the loop, but if you don’t, your brain will keep nudging you about it and it can become incredibly draining.”
There’s even a term for why these thoughts are so powerful – the Zeigarnik effect – named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who based her experiments on the hypothesis that waiters have amazing recall on open orders, but can’t remember any specifics once the bill is paid.
Zeigarnik theorised that the brain will always remember an uncompleted task better than it does a finished one – and, if my mind at two AM is anything to go by, she was right!
As well as being draining and stressful, there’s another downside to collecting unfinished business – poor results. Magpie dieting, where you may spend one week on one plan then swap to another that takes your fancy the next, is a great example of this.
All the switching means your body never settles into a routine, weight loss is minimal and you start to set up a belief that diets don’t work.
“You end up with a lifetime of wishfulness but little evidence of achievement, which in turn can lead to self-doubt and a lack of confidence about your ability to see things through,” explains psychotherapist Shane Warren.
“Such thinking patterns then trap you into starting tasks in a way that proves you right – and not completing your tasks becomes a habit that’s hard to break.”
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The distractible brain
Why do people get distracted in the first place?
Well, mostly it’s because new, shiny things make you happy. Planning and starting a new task give you a dopamine buzz that rewards your efforts, but as this buzz disappears – your enthusiasm goes with it.
“This is why it’s much easier to start a new task than progress past a hurdle on an existing one,” explains O’Donoghue.
You’re also up against something called the law of inertia. Think of the act of starting a new task like a stone rolling down a hill – which will keep rolling steadily until something stops it.
In today’s ever-switched-on world, something (such as an instant message or email notification) stops you roughly every three minutes. And by their very beeping, flashing, screen-lighting nature, they seem more urgent than anything else you’re doing, so you pay attention to them. And, when you interrupt a task, it can be hard to pick it back up again.
There’s also an issue called ‘errand paralysis’ – a phrase that was coined to describe the inability to complete simple tasks because you’re busy focusing on the more urgent stuff.
In other words, as you tick off the items on your must-do list, such as finishing off a work project or cooking dinner, for example, your medium priority list, like returning online purchases or getting your car cleaned, just keeps growing.
Finish what you started
Now you know why you do it, the next question is how to stop it – and one of the first steps is to start to close some of your open loops.
Delete that show on Netflix you know you’re never going to finish, reply to that email you keep ignoring, get your car cleaned. “Be aware, though, this may not totally solve your problem,” warns O’Donoghue.
You see, the tasks that suffer most from Magpie Syndrome are those known as IBNU tasks – important, but not urgent.
“The big problem with these issues is that at some point they often do become urgent and that’s why your brain keeps nagging at you to complete them,” says O’Donoghue.
This, I theorise, is why my garden bugs me so much.
It looks OK, but the longer I leave the other walls unpainted, the more chance there is they’ll get damaged by the elements and my brain knows I don’t want a massive repair bill on my hands.
Setting priorities can help. Go through your todos and list them according to priority.
“By simply allocating something a number on your list, you’re already satisfying your brain that the loop is progressing, so it will stop paying attention to it for a while,” says O’Donoghue.
The next step is to finish task number one in its entirety before moving on to the next item on your list – and without getting distracted.
Closing the loop on one task is likely to spur you on for the ones that follow.
And if all else fails, delegate! Sometimes the only way to get a task out of your head is to give it to someone else to do. Now that sounds like a great idea – so, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a painter to find.
Combat Magpie Syndrome with this 20-minute trick
If an unfinished task seems overwhelming because it’s too big, set 20 minutes each day to dedicate to it. This sounds like an obvious solution, but it isn’t a natural way of working for those prone to Magpie Syndrome.
“Strangely, not finishing tasks is often associated with perfectionism as perfectionists often simply won’t start a task they don’t feel they can complete effectively,” says time-management coach Barbara Clifford.
“You need to forget the big picture and set short deadlines to completely achieve just one small element of the job.”
When you finish your allotted session, congratulate yourself and tick it off your list.
“This creates a completion mindset and helps instigate new pathways in your brain that make you more likely to see your way to the end of a task,” adds Warren.