For peace of mind in the pandemic, let go of impossible To Do lists

23rd April, 2020

Nearly a century ago there was a grand café near the University of Berlin. Academic psychologists who took lunch there marvelled at the memory of one of the waiters: no matter how large the group and how complex the order, he could keep it all in his head. Then one day, or so the story goes, someone left a coat behind. He hurried back into the café, only to find that the waiter didn’t remember him. This feat of amnesia seemed almost as remarkable as the feat of recollection that had preceded it. But the waiter had no trouble explaining the discrepancy: “When the order has been completed, then I can forget it.”

Two of the psychologists in the group, Kurt Lewin and Bluma Zeigarnik, decided to investigate. In 1927, Zeigarnik published research demonstrating that people had a much greater recall of uncompleted tasks than completed ones — a finding that became known at the Zeigarnik effect. Do you lie awake at night churning through everything you’ve promised yourself you’ll do? That’s the Zeigarnik effect tormenting you. The blessed release of forgetting comes only when you, like the waiter, know the task is complete.

That brings me to the pandemic, which has done nothing to reduce the number of our sleepless nights. Some of us have children to homeschool. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question. Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs. One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is being turned upside down.

It’s a strange time, but some of the anxiety can be soothed by harnessing the Zeigarnik effect. Our stress levels are rising in part because that long list of things to do that we all carry around — on paper, digitally, or in our heads — has been radically rearranged. It’s as though the Berlin waiter had, mid-order, been asked also to chop onions, answer the phone and draft a shopping list.

Simple jobs such as getting a haircut or buying toilet paper now require planning. Paperwork has multiplied, from claiming refunds on cancelled holidays to writing letters of condolence. Many of us have intimidating new responsibilities, notably the guilt-inducing task of organising our children’s home schooling. In many cases, the old tasks haven’t even been cancelled, merely postponed, with delivery dates to be confirmed. Our subconscious keeps interrupting with reminders of incomplete — sometimes incompletable — tasks. No wonder we feel anxious.

Fortunately, the psychologists E J Masicampo and Roy Baumeister have found that a task doesn’t have to have been completed to trigger that pleasant slate-wiping forgetfulness. Making a clear plan for what to do next will also work. That Berlin waiter could have saved some of his mental energy if he had decided to write everything down. So, to harness the Zeigarnik effect to keep your sanity in a lockdown, get your to-do list in order.

Start with a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year” — anything from trying to source weekly groceries to finding a new job.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it. First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. Write down the mothballed tasks and file them away; you’ll see them on the other side. Other tasks will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Ten seconds of marking the fact that the project has been obliterated may banish a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Then there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated — like that haircut. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: What’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is the next step? Write all that down.

Third, there are brand new projects: set up a home office; keep the children busy and entertained; help out vulnerable neighbours. In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what is the very next action that needs taking, and write it down.

Occasionally, you may encounter something that’s on your mind that has no feasible next step. Some people fret about the fate of western civilisation. I worry about an elderly relative, suffering dementia in a locked-down nursing home and unable to comprehend a video chat. If there is literally nothing to be done except to wait and hope, acknowledging that can itself be a useful step.

I won’t pretend that in this frightening time all anxiety will be banished by clarifying a to-do list. It won’t. But you may be surprised at how much mental energy the process saves. There will be no convivial meals at any grand cafés for a while; the sooner we can acknowledge that, the sooner we can mentally unclench our grip on that half-completed order for lunch.


 Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 April 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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