Attention chronic non-finishers, I know your secret!

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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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30 responses

30 responses to “Attention chronic non-finishers, I know your secret!”

  1. I certainly know of people who are chronically busy so they don’t have to think too deeply about their own lives. They’re shutting out the Silence with noise.

    I think you might be on to something with this, because the more I’m able to engineer my life so that I’m doing what I want, the more I get done, the more money I make, and I feel more personally fulfilled.

    But even if nothing else, Jonathan, you have also perfectly made the case for documentation! 🙂

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow. I’m totally floored. You have completely nailed me.

    My mom went to be with the lord this year after battling cancer for two years. The news of her cancer two years ago was enough to push my troubled marriage into the abyss and so soon after the diagnosis I was divorced.

    I am a CNF. Have been for a long time, and yes this is why. I could never see the connection this clearly before though. Thank you.

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Michael – I started thinking about this, because I am fascinated by the way we create or limit options unconsciously. Interesting point about documentation.

    @ Anon – Sending you healing intentions for a year of increasing happiness and clarity ahead…and maybe even a few more finished things!

  4. guilty as charged. it has gotten to the point where i don’t even bother keeping a to do list because i’ll have to add a note on it to clean my desk of all my to so lists.

    being a cnf is not necessarily a bad thing though. my father in law told me once that if you’re in a hole, stop digging. so you start something, but realize that the reward is not worth the effort, so quit. i quit a lot. i get to spend more time doing stuff i like (family shit) and i’m a happier person for it. just my two cents.

  5. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Michael – good point about not digging yourself deeper.

    But, in reality, when you start something, then realize it’s not worth the effort and decide to stop, you actually have completed your “conscious investment” in the task, even though your actions were not what you thought they’d be when you started it.

    It’s not on your mind anymore, because, as far as you are concerned, it’s over. On the other hand, if you began it and then just left it unfinished without making a conscious decision that it over, it would continue to take up a small slice of brain-pizza until you came back and made some decision about it.

    I am actually a big believer in cutting your losses, once it becomes clear that the anticipated ends no longer justifies the effort.

    Seth Godin write about this in his book The Dip. you should check it out.

    Make sense? Have a great weekend!

  6. KimH says:

    Great post, Jonathan! You hit it on the head.

    I’ve been struggling in IM for the past year without much success, trying one thing after another. Most gurus say stick with one thing till you get great at it and then you’ll be successful. (Not necessarily true.)

    What I came to realize just recently was that maybe IM isn’t for me. I’ve actually started to dread turning my computer on in the mornings. I think that’s a huge wake-up call from my subconscious telling me that I’m supposed to be doing something else.

    I started writing children’s books back in high school but gave that up for a “real” career. Maybe I should look back into that again…or figure out what it is that would make me happiest.

    The sad thing is, and it’s probably the same for most people, that after years and years of working at JOBS and just getting by, I don’t really even know what makes me happy anymore. I’d given up hobbies a long time ago.

    I guess I have a lot of soul-searching to do…

    Thank you for a great site!

    Kim H.

  7. OUCH!

    Jonathan, your CNF theory has a compelling ring of truth.

    Our brains are crafty little creatures, aren’t they?

    I am becoming more and more intrigued with the idea of learning how to “partner with” my brain… Ideas?

  8. shelley says:

    tis true. i love lists and it is very satisfying to check each item off then crumple the paper before sending it to the rubbish. the thing is, i am very good at the lists i make for work and friends…

    my personal life? i am fully aware that i ignore the “self care” list. i will take care of everyone else before carving out time for me. i feel guilty if i don’t.

    one exception i will claim is that i live and work around people who continue to push me to grow as a person. i know this is not the case for all people and i acknowledge that, and i am eternally grateful.

    i can only then ponder why i am forever in my own way since i clearly have the ability and support. there is NO question that it is a “me thing”

    scared, i guess. if i commit %100 to something and then i suck at it my ego will be crushed. rather just not go down that road then have to face my egos reservations. selfish really if you think about it. getting in the way of the Divine from moving through you and creating something extraordinary.

    guess i should ponder all of this more….

    Hara Om

  9. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Kim H – I’m a big believer in building your work around what makes you come alive. It’s not always easy, I’m still very much in the thick of that very adventure, but in the end, it’s incredibly worth it!

    @ Sheila – Love that phrase “partner with my brain.”

    @ Shelley – Nelson Mandela said, and I paraphrase bigtime, that our greatest fear is not so much failure, but success. And, then he asks, “who are we NOT to shine?”

  10. Adeline says:

    FEAR – fear of having any time to be with yourself to discover that the life you are living is not the life you want to be living. This is what creates that busyness you speak about Jonathan. I see it all the time with women volunteering for everything to fill up their time. If they are busy and constantly with other people they don’t need to be with themselves and face where they are in life. I think it is unconscious for the most part. It is not easy to take the time to really, really think about what you want for your life; what truly makes you happy (not what others want for you or expect of you). By discovering what we truly want to be doing we may be able to remove some of those tasks not completed off our list because we didn’t begin them with the right intentions. When you do discover what it is you want from your life, create achievable action points to a goal (not just the goal) so that you get the satisfaction of completing each small step to spur you on to the next step. In 2008, decide to live your life with intention – your own intention.

  11. shane says:

    It is such an interesting issue. And you are right – the day I began keeping a list with me that I trusted, I felt a massive letting go inside me. I never realized how stressful it was trying to hold that in my head.

    What is interesting is the different capacity to filter, sort, box and then deal with things within your mental space. I can handle a fair bit before becoming befuddled. Peter doesn’t take much and reacts aggressively and upset when he reaches full capacity. He is basically protecting the things in his mind from death.

    I remember this married with children episode where in order to get kelly to pass the SAT, since she ran out of room in her brain, they had to replace basic knowledge like who her family was.



  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Adeline – makes you really wake up to the power of the subconscious to try and steer the ship, sometimes in the right direction, other…who knows? I’ll let you when I have all the answers, though, I’m expecting a memo on Tuesday! 😉

    @ Shane – funny thing is, when I write things down, like dates, they actually vanish from my head. Which is great for giving me space to do more constructive things. But, not so great when my wife has constantly remind me that we have some event to go to, but I have no recollection because I wrote it down, immediately forgot it and then rarely ever check my calendar, because I think I still remember everything important!

    So, it makes it seem like I actually wasn’t listening, when, in fact, writing it down was really just like zapping me with one of them Men In Black mind-cleanse pen doohickies!

    Note to self…no more late nights!

  13. […] Attention chronic non-finishers, I know your secret! 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. (tags: procrastination psychology self-improvement)  envoyer ce post

  14. gale says:

    perfect 🙂 pithily, what i got from your observations is that self-awareness may be a solution to procrastination. and i also must admit myself that when i begin things, i get this energy and excitement of starting something new, but i often do not bring that thing to fruition. thank you jonathan, for such a delightfully enlightening post!

  15. […] #3 – Clear your to-do list right now […]

  16. Jonathan: I think your post explains why my time management efforts have left me with more time to relax than before when I didn’t have a schedule. I’ve found that if I set up what needs to be done the next day, I can forget about it the rest of the night. In the morning, it’s all laid out for me and I just have to focus on one thing at a time without sweating out the whole big picture. Stuff seems to magically get done with way less effort than before.

  17. This reminds me of the premise of the website at ~ not exactly about non-finishing, but an observation that procrastination of some tasks is what actually allows us to be productive and accomplish others (because we’re avoiding other stuff!!) So, having *more* stuff on your plate can actually help you get things done.

    I just thought you might find that an interesting read; I did. 🙂

  18. shane says:

    Jonathan – thats it exactly. A calendar is absolutely totally useless – if you don’t USE IT. I do want it off my mind, but I have also built a habit of checking my calendar last thing, first thing and often in the middle.

  19. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Harrison – Setting up the next is a great tool. I tend to blow this off more often than not, but when I really put effort into it, it makes each day flow a lot better…and calmer

    @ Sarah – never heard of that site, I’ll check it out!

    @ Shane – yeah, it’s a two-part puzzle and if you dump your stuff onto paper/screen and then never check them, then you’ll end up having plenty of space…to get hammered for forgetting everything!

  20. @Johnathan: Trust me, there are plenty of times I want to blow it off, but it’s a slippery slope. If I let it go for one day, I’ll let it go for another and another after that until eventually I stop doing it.

    I agree that in order for the whole thing to work, you need to look at the calendar or list constantly throughout the day. This is how I stumbled on Google’s desktop widgets. The Google calendar widget links directly to my Google account calendar and displays everything I have listed in the account calendar right there for me to easily view over the course of the day. Can’t ask for anything easier than that!

  21. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Harrison – Agreed, thanks for reminder about Google calendar, too, I have to take a closer look at using this.

  22. Daniel says:

    Thank you Jonathon. I think you just set me free.

  23. Emmanuel says:

    It might well be the fear not to be able to finish it well, or as well as expected and previously figure out.

    Another piece of the puzzle:
    They are so many things to try, all bringing new feelings and sensations.

    I start a new task.
    Just to discover it was not as good as figured out, then I quickly zap to another one.

  24. […] I was scouring around the net the other night and stumbled across this post by Jonathan Fields. […]

  25. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Daniel – ha ha! Glad to be of free-ing service!

    @ Emmanuel – good points, there are definitely many different elements in play, this is one for many people

  26. […] compulsion to finish what they complete. I actually wrote about this in my earlier article on the Zeigarnik effect. And, this applies not only to projects, conversations and tasks, but to sentences, too.So, if you […]

  27. Dave Navarro says:

    I’ve known about the CNF downward spiral forever, but I never thought of how it tied to the Zeg. effect.

    Nice catch!

  28. […] Jonathan Fields of Jonathan Fields | Awake At The Wheel is a hedge-fund-lawyer turned yoga-&-online-marketing-maven with a penchant for cogent discussions about the state of the internet and the greater world around us. Productivity is only one part of his writing, but one where you’ll find true gems like how to turn work into play and the secret of chronic non-finishers. […]

  29. Xeres says:

    I found the article surprisingly illuminating, I’m a CNF. That is, I used to be. I have stopped undertaking anything, isolated myself from humans, tried to clear my mind, solve old psychological issues and found out that I can’t do all on my own. I can’t even rebuild my own ‘house’, I can’t carry the ceiling on my own. But unlike taking a professional doing the big things, in private lives it takes trust and friendship.

  30. Natalie says:

    I am so busted.

    I have a few theories, and all of them apply to my life, unfortunately (and I recognize they’re not healthy–ugh):

    1. Fear is a biggie (I agree with Adeline)–fear of the unknown, especially. Sometimes it feels better to stay where you are–even if it sucks–than to try something different wherein you don’t know the outcome. This applies to both fear of success and fear of failure, in my mind: Both are the unknown. Purgatory is sometimes the only comfortable place. Sick, I know.

    2. Avoidance, absolutely. For me, I stay busy both to feel like I’m doing something productive (even if the act of being busy actually has me doing a total time-wasting activity) and to avoid being alone with my thoughts. Why? Because I know my thoughts have a lot of wisdom buried in them…things like, “Why are you wasting your time on that? Go do something fun, for crying out loud! Or at least make a dent in that pet project you keep putting off in lieu of other people’s needs.”

    3. Guilt. In my case, this is largely cultural. I was raised by East European immigrants whose culture is practically defined by what they call “selflessness” which most psychologists would call “martyrdom.” In this particular community (as in many others), your purpose in life is to help others to the nth degree–the second you turn your attention on yourself (yah, even if you have a chronic health condition and need to stay home) you are not only selfish, but you are a disgrace to your family and your community. Ouch. On a related note, this same upbringing values following through with a commitment no matter how painful or difficult or senseless (hence the prevalence of abusive relationships). Quitting is not an option. Nor is failure. I’m 30 years old and have only recently begun to see the folly of this thinking. Environmental factors are very strong when it comes to learned behaviors.

    4. Feeling needed/important. If you have something to do, you’re being a productive member of society, right? I think this aspect is also related to #3. The funny thing is that self-care (including shortening the to-do list, or at least being realistic about it) is one of the most productive things a person can do for him/herself. You take care of you = you are better able to take care of others. Seems like a simple concept, but it’s very difficult to practice. It takes discipline.

    5. For those who have the added whammy of dealing with a mental health condition (depression, anxiety, OCD, etc.), there’s also that chemical imbalance that somehow makes suffering a little more comforting than relief. Sounds backwards, but it is surprisingly common. (And this is one of the many reasons it’s really shameful that the US doesn’t have a good public health care system in place for helping people who can’t help themselves…but that’s another topic.)

    Now for the good news, and this gets back to something you said, Jonathan, in your “law of attraction” post: The mind is a powerful tool. We CNFers have, perhaps unconsciously, been repeating the wrong messages to ourselves. What would happen if we replaced them with healthy ones that would actually help us not get so caught up in to-do lists that mean nothing and instead have us focusing on bigger life goals that create meaning and richness during our short time on this planet? I’m thankful that the work I get to do is what I love (music and graphic design), but sometimes maintaining the status quo isn’t enough. You need to propel yourself into action, but it has to start in the head first. I teach voice one day a week, and my biggest catch-phrase for my students is “mind before music”–you won’t get what you want out of your life if you don’t first believe it will happen. But you won’t have room in your mind to visualize your goals and create those beliefs if it’s so full of to-do nonsense that you’re too pooped at the end of the day to even think about it.

    Thanks, Jonathan. I think that, in responding to your post, I’ve figured out a few things I need to do.