Push the send button. Click publish on a blog post. Close the sale. Archive the support ticket.
All of these moments give us a gratifying sense of accomplishment. No one can deny completing something on a to-do list is one of life’s small pleasures. But, are those small dopamine hits every time you accomplish something ruining the overall effectiveness of your work?
Every human has two sets of tasks they need to achieve: immediate tasks quickly accomplished and large projects that could take weeks, months or even years to finish.
Our brains are trained to release a small amount of dopamine every time we complete something, which leads to the quick tasks being accomplished in record speed. On top of that pleasant feeling, completing smaller tasks could also mean freeing up the time and resources to tackle those larger projects, too.
Where do your priorities lie? That’s where the problem could come in. At many offices, you’re rewarded for your output. What you achieve, what milestone you hit, what you’ve completed – all of these provide a positive feedback loop that releases the ever-happy dopamine. And since dopamine improves attention span, memory and motivation in humans, we become wired to do the tasks that allow us to tap back into it as soon as possible.
The term ‘completion bias’ comes into play here. Completion bias is when your brain specifically seeks the pleasure completing a task can bring. It can come from anywhere – be it finishing up a day of errands you’ve been putting off, to reordering that printer ink and checking it off your to-do list, to completing a book.
When it all feels the same, our brains naturally gravitate toward the way to get it quickest. It leaves us humans in a pickle, really. We get a good sense accomplishment by completing quick tasks that don’t necessarily move the needle forward in a big way. It fogs our minds into thinking we’ve had a successful day’s work, when if we were go to back and analyze our accomplishments, we would see that little was done to achieve a big goal. Meanwhile, those big guys wait to be tackled longer than they should because they won’t provide us the sense of accomplishment quick enough. It’s how procrastination on big tasks comes about, yet we can accomplish 100 small things with ease. How do we overcome it?
Know your big priorities and ruthlessly map back to them.
GE came up with a great approach to personal productivity that helps overcome the need to check off random tasks quickly. It’s geared around identifying priorities and company initiatives, not necessarily everyday tasks. First, identify the top three to five priorities for the company at the time. From there, whenever you are completing something, you must map it back to the identified priorities or initiatives. Not able to? Park it somewhere else for later.
Give tangent distractions a minute or two of your time, but not a second more.
The idea to park ideas that come up while doing tasks that help you truly achieve a goal comes from design sprints. In a week long workshop, teams come together to identify a problem and create a solution in record time. There’s no room for slack or fat. It’s lean and it’s mean. The results? Mind-blowing solutions ready for user testing in five days or less.
In order to do that, you have to let go of a lot of smaller ideas and thoughts that could provide quick satisfaction that day. Just because you’re not doing them today, doesn’t mean they aren’t great ideas for later. Therefore, you create a ‘parking lot’ on a wall, where good ideas go on Post-It Notes and are stuck there for later review. Those ideas could become priorities all their own the next go around, just not today when you’re focused on achieving something else.
There’s a small sense of accomplishment knowing you came up with an idea that could evolve into something big. Writing it down is great, and even letting it simmer a bit before you act on it could evolve it into something even better.
Create easily achievable milestones each day that ladder up to the big goal.
You’ve heard about taking a big idea and breaking it down into small, actionable steps as a surefire way to get there. There’s power behind that, and it all comes back to completion bias. This allows your brain to get the sense of completion toward the bigger goal by finishing those quick tasks to get there, and it will keep you motivated to continue pressing on.
The milestones shouldn’t be so far apart that you lose steam or become burned out trying to achieve them. In fact, having at least one win a day, no matter how small, should keep you right on track.
Give yourself time to celebrate those smaller milestones.
Those that really succumb to their completion bias seem to overlook all they’ve accomplished during the day since it didn’t complete the ultimate project. By doing this, you’re setting the goal farther and farther from your current state, and you’ll never get a sense of gratification to work off of – or at least not as often as you should to keep your motivation high.
Make sure to take at least five minutes at the end of every day to map your progress on a specific priority or goal. By seeing how far you’ve come, you’ll get that same dopamine hit as you would by crossing off five meaningless tasks that didn’t move you any further in your career than they did the day before.
It’s like paying off debt – it won’t all happen at once, and at times it feels like a snail’s pace. However, if you look back at where you were more than a year ago, you’ll be so proud of how far you’ve come.