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Stress and Disorganization

What is the connection between stress and disorganization?

Why do we feel anxious when things are disorganized?

How can dirty dishes, dirty laundry and messy rooms cause us so much emotional angst?

This is one of the questions I was looking to answer during my month-long Organization Experiment.

This isn’t about being a control freak and needing everything in a particular place.

It is more about why the world is a little off when things aren’t where they should be. Or, more precisely, why the world feels like it is ending when everything is a mess.

It wasn’t until I read about the Zeigarnik Effect that I started to make the connection.

It was this connection that also provided the seed for a solution.

Let me explain.

The Zeigarnik Effect

The story begins with a group of psychology students out to lunch one afternoon. Their waiter took their orders, delivered the food and handled everything like a pro. All without writing anything down.

One student forgot something at the table and when they returned to the restaurant to ask the waiter for help tracking it down the waiter had no recollection of the student, the group, or anything else about their meal that had just ended.

As Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explain in Willpower:

One of the scholars, a young Russian psychology student named Bluma Zeigarnik, and her mentor, the influential thinker Kurt Lewin, pondered this experience and wondered if it pointed to a more general principle. Did the human memory make a strong distinction between finished and unfinished tasks? They began observing people who were interrupted while doing jigsaw puzzles. This research, and many studies in the following decades, confirmed what became known as the Zeigarnik Effect: uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.

Imagine being forced to remember all the things you have left undone.

This is something you can’t help. Maybe if you have one or two tasks or goals outstanding it could be bearable. But what if like most people you have an seemingly endless list of things to do or stuff to accomplish?

Your mind suddenly becomes an echo chamber of the undone.

Doesn’t the thought of all those emails in your inbox pop into your head throughout the day? Everyday.

Do you ever feel the stress of so much to do, all of it usually in plain sight, and no clear plan to get it all put away, finished and done?

When I realized that just having stuff undone could be bouncing around in my head until I did something about it; made me think of two things.

One, how do I get ahead of all this clutter; both physically around me and in my head?

Two, how do I keep pushing forward and not settle for good enough when I do start getting organized?

To answer those questions I went to my Mastermind Group.

Author Mastermind Group

Masterminds are all the rage these days. A group of people holding each other accountable, sharing best practices and offering insights, guidance and support as they all go about trying to achieve their goals.

I think they are a great idea. I think the potential payoff in joining one is unlimited.

I’ll never join one.

They may work for some people, but I’m a raging shy, introverted, would rather live in a cave type of person.

I’m not going to expend the effort to try to find a Mastermind, start a Mastermind or fall into one by accident.

It is just not going to happen.

The thing is I think they work and they make a lot of sense.

So I decided to create a silent Mastermind.

The Silent Mastermind Group

I read over 100 books a year. I figured somewhere, in one or more of those books (all nonfiction), there has to be the answers to all the questions I have. There has to be best practices, insights, guidance and help to hit my goals.

And I don’t have to talk to anyone.

So I started thinking: how do I answer those two questions from earlier. Luckily, my Author Mastermind Group (AMG from now on) came to my rescue.

I didn’t even have to pull up my Kindle notes, go through my boxes of handwritten notes or pull my books out of the boxes in the garage.

I remembered enough to begin to scratch my own itch.

Going from Zeigarnik to Zero

The first time I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done I stopped 100 pages in.

I remember thinking how could anyone lavish praise on this dense, overcomplicated, joke of a system. It seemed like one of those cure the disease, kill the patient type of scenarios.

He had a technique for everything and there was no way I could remember all of them.

Two years later I read it cover to cover and realized the problem wasn’t the book, it was me. I wasn’t ready to read his book.

That was 5 years ago.

The problem was I forgot one of his most basic tenets: get stuff out of your head and put it somewhere else so you can focus.

Of course the Zeigarnik Effect made sense. Our brain loves closed loops, not open loops. It wants stuff done.

I sat down and wrote down everything I needed to do. All the stuff I needed to organize – from every box in my garage to my Dropbox account.

The disorganized clouds parted and I saw the light.

Now I could prioritize this huge list and start chipping away at it. It felt good.

Then a thought jumped into my now empty head. How will I keep going?

I Think I Can, I Think I Can, I Did

My problem suddenly became how do I keep going and working on this list.

Of course I could see the long-term benefits, but what about the short-term focus and energy and stick-to-itiveness (trust me, its a word), that I would need?

Luckily, another member of my AMG came to my rescue.

Dan Pink has a video newsletter called Pinkcast. In episode 1.16 2 lists better than a to-do list, he talks about a Done List.

We spend so much time checking off items on our to-do list, that we don’t stop and look at all the work we have done. What if we gave ourselves that pat on the back at the end of every day?

My list of organization projects was huge. I knew it was going to be a tough slog. But setting aside the time every day to see what I had done, how much I had accomplished – it made me feel good. It kept me motivated.

Another great side effect was setting goals for the next day.

For example, I would organize (and check off) four items on a Tuesday. The next day the goal was 5 things.

It became a game and who doesn’t like to play games where they set the rules?


In the end after learning of the Zeigarnik Effect I realized that once I was able to get the stuff out of my head (thanks again David), and create a system to keep me going (thanks Dan), I was able to use it for good.

I realized my brain just wants me to finish the stuff I start. It has the best of intentions.

It doesn’t judge whether having a messy sock drawer is more or less important than filing my taxes. If either is incomplete, it just wants to get them finished and move on to the next thing.

My brain has work to do.  The sooner it can forget about this open loop, the sooner it can get started on closing the next one.

Published in Monthly Experiment Organization

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