Have you ever known a chronic non-finisher (CNF)? Are you a CNF?
You know, someone whose list of things begun always profoundly out-sizes their list of things completed?
Most CNFs chalk it up to having to much to do, being easily-distracted, having ADD or just outright passive-aggressive payback. But, there may be something bigger going on. Non-finishing may actually be a defense mechanism for not doing what you really want to do in life!
Non-finishing and the Zeigarnik Effect.
Legend has it, famed Russian and psychologist and researcher, Bluma Zeigarnik, was sitting at a café in Vienna when she noticed that her waiter could remember the details of a large order perfectly until that customer was served. Once served, the order literally vanished from the waiter’s memory.
Through further research, Zeigarnik discovered that people, in general, will remember the details of most any task until it is completed and then, remarkably, forget much of what unfolded. Moreover, once begun, there is an underlying psychological drive to complete the task.
So, between the process of remembering what needs to be done and enduring the constant tug to bring a task to completion, every unfinished task stakes a claim to a small piece of our memory and short-term cognitive abilities.
It stands to reason, then, that the more we begin and the less we finish, the more chronically occupied our minds become. Beyond feeling stressed, frazzled and overwhelmed, this can also lead to impaired thinking, problem-solving and creativity. Not the most pleasant state in the world. Question is…
If chronic non-finishing makes us feel so chronically cruddy, why do so many of us do it?
I am sure there are many people far more studied than I who can provide a thoroughly researched answer. And, hey, if you’re reading this, please feel free to share your thoughts. I can only speak from personal experience and observation.
But, one of the answers I’ve come to, through my experience and observing many CNFs who I’ve known in differing ways, is that often times chronic non-finishing seems to be a coping mechanism for an inability deal with bigger life issues.
Imagine your brain was one of those giant planned housing developments.
Every time you start a task, it’s like buying a beautiful house with a big old lawn that needs to be maintained daily. That takes some work, but you still have plenty of times to live. Now, what if you bought 5 more houses? Or, what about 20?
Until the day you sell those houses, every moment of your waking life is spent tending to them, mowing the lawns, shoveling the snow, tending the gardens, cleaning the kitchens, painting and fixing the plumbing. You’ve begun the task of homeownership many times over, leaving less and less time to consider, let alone do anything else, until the houses are sold.
Now, if there was a lot of good in your life and you were truly engaged in many other activities that filled you up, caring for all your properties would take you away from all that joy and you’d be strongly compelled to complete the task of homeownership, very likely try to sell off most of your properties, get them off your mind and have more time to do what you love.
Chronic non-finishing limits your ability to think about what bothers you.
But, if what was going on outside of tending to those houses was disconcerting, upsetting or would require time, energy, attention, interactions and solutions that you’d rather not have to deal with, then you might not only hold onto your 20 houses, you might even buy another 5 to make absolutely sure you just didn’t have time to deal with the cruddy stuff.
And, the thing is, you’d very likely not even realize why you kept buying more houses, taking on more tasks than could ever comfortably completed. But, every time you thought about selling one, the equivalent of checking a task off your “already-started” list, you’d get a bit anxious and feel the need to keep it open and move on.
Selling even one would mean completing the task, getting it off your mind and freeing up your brain’s real-estate to deal with the rest of life. In this way, buying that home or beginning the task of homeownership would essentially become a subconscious avoidance mechanism, keeping your mind so occupied with unfinished tasks, you wouldn’t have any brain-space left to have to deal with bigger challenges.
It’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Are there other reasons people start tasks and never finish? Absolutely. Are there many other underlying factors, from mindset to lifestyle or even disorder? You betcha. I am not a doctor. So, my observation does not necessarily overlay every person who filled their lives with uncompleted tasks.
But, I wonder, if you are one of those people, or if you know any of those folks, whether you might want to explore two questions. One, do you/they really need to start so many things you/they know will be incapable of being finishing? And, two, what is really stopping you/them from doing what’s necessary to start checking things off that eternally growing to-do list.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas and stories in the comment section below, so please share…
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