The Irresistible Allure of Getting Anything Done

Ahh…completion!

You know the feeling. Inbox…empty. Weekly review…done. Deliverable…delivered. Project…complete. That slight rush as you say, “It is finished.”

This can be a great additional motivation in getting things done. One little completion “fix” after another and pretty soon you’re on a major productivity roll.

But there can be a dark side.

See, the act of completion feels so good that it can become an addiction — to the point that we very easily find ourselves finishing something — anything — that we can finish quickly, rather than diving into larger, more difficult tasks.

We all know the joy of picking low-hanging fruit. On the up side, at least it’s productive — at least it’s doing something to help us move forward.I don’t know about you, though, but I could probably spend an entire month knocking out a backlog of low-hanging fruit without doing anything on any of my major projects. While a month might be a bit much, in reality I frequently find myself spending several hours – even an entire day — finishing things that are productive, but not truly the most important thing I need to be doing.

But that’s not the worst of it. When it becomes downright destructive is at the point that you start feeding your addiction by finishing anything. A game of Sudoku. Another level in World of Warcraft. Random house cleaning. Watching the last episode of the Monk marathon you recorded two weeks ago. Replying to all your Twitter and Facebook messages.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, assuming they are truly at the top of your priority list. And yes, entertainment can be at the top of your list even when you have work to be done. Your brain needs a break in order to be at maximum productivity when you’re focused on work.

But the appeal of these things is in more than just their entertainment value. A big part of the appeal is the illusion that you’re actually accomplishing something — feeding that fix of getting things done, even if what you’re getting done isn’t at the top of your list.

So what’s the solution?

As with any habit or addiction, quitting cold turkey is difficult if not impossible. The best way to quit a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. It’s OK to be addicted to getting things done — just replace getting anything done with getting the right things done.

You don’t have to be perfect at it. In my own experience, I’ve found it just about impossible to leap directly from that completely wasteful time to maximum productivity. Just take one step up the ladder. If you find yourself doing something pointless just for a completion fix, start picking some low-hanging fruit instead. If you’re on a roll with low-hanging fruit and avoiding bigger tasks, choose just one. Pick the highest-priority task that you can get done in, say, an hour and do it.

No matter how good your system is, it’s still ultimately only as good as your ability to stick to it. If you find yourself having a hard time, this is one place to look. Watch yourself for a week and see if you may have an addiction to getting anything done, rather than getting the right things done.

Image: Missouri Bike Federation