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Ticking off your to-do list feels really good, but the drive to finish a task can undermine your wellbeing and your productivity.

© Thea O’Connor

You’ve been working on a task most of the morning, and are nearly finished – but not quite.  Lunch time arrives, and despite feeling tired and hungry, you tell yourself “I’ll just finish this first.” 

‘I’ll just send this email’, ‘I’ll just finish this page’ – this is our completion bias speaking.  It’s a powerful psychological force that drives us to keep going until the end so we can enjoy the satisfaction of ticking off an item on our to-do list.  We are literally happier when we can say ‘done’,  because the brain releases the feel-good hormone dopamine, when we achieve goals. 

What is completion bias?

The tendency of people to feel compelled to complete a task once they have started it.  It is fuelled by the pleasure we experience on finishing a job.

While motivating, completion bias lures people into pushing on, even when their body and mind are flagging.  As a result, we can miss the opportunity to take a recovery break instead.  Breaks as short as one to 10 minutes can make a real difference to mental focus as well as physical health.  

That’s why Flinders University’s emeritus professor of psychology Leon Lack encourages workers to push back on completion bias and take a break earlier than you think you need to. “Fatigue accumulates towards the end of a task, so don’t let yourself get to that point,” advises Lack.  “If you take a break when the going is good, you’ll be less likely to  make mistakes and more able to re-engage with the task more quickly when you come back to it.  Overall, you’ll be more efficient.”  

Completion bias can further undermine productivity by deterring us from tackling the more difficult or more important tasks.  Answering an email or posting a social media update instead is quicker, easier, and gives the brain a biochemical boost.  

In some settings, this can be dangerous.   In her research into emergency hospital doctors Francesca Gino from Harvard Business School and colleagues examined 230,000 patient encounters.  They found that as workload increased, doctors were more prone to choose the easy patients first, due to fatigue, or wanting to feel a sense of progress.  This meant that patients with more severe issues waited longer.

In other settings a few quick wins early in the day might actually improve your overall productivity.  Employees who completed a couple of short, easy tasks  at the start of the day, and then tackled their priority tasks afterwards, were the most satisfied with their job, felt the highest level of motivation and accomplished the most throughout the week, than those who got straight into their to-do list, according to unpublished research conducted by Gino involving over 500 e employees.  The explanation?  Dopamine, which is released on achieving even small goals,  improves attention, memory and motivation, leaving you feeling better equipped to move on to the hard stuff. 

This contrasts the long-held belief that you’ll be more productive if you tackle your hardest, most important tasks first, so you don’t waste valuable mental energy on less important work.  

Clearly, there are  no hard and fast rules about how to best navigate completion bias, but how can you be wise to its effects so you can makes sure it doesn’t mess with your heath or your productivity? 

  1. Know Thyself:   Be honest with yourself.  Are you really doing these short quick tasks for a strategic boost, or are you avoiding what you really should be doing?
  2. Know Your Priorities:  Check that you are you dedicating your best energy and time of day to your most important work, rather than to mundane tasks. 
  3. Be disciplined:  If you do choose to give yourself a physiological jump start by knocking off a few easy tasks first, be strict about how much time you allow for this.  Put the timer on if you need to.
  4. Prioritise recovery breaks:  Work: rest rations are essential for quality work.  When flagging, rather than say “I’ll just finish this,” tell yourself “I’ll just take a quick break so I can be more effective.”
  5. Delayed gratification :  It’s one of the most defining traits of successful people, both with regards to health and life accomplishment.  Try rewarding yourself with some quick-tick jobs after you’ve tackled your difficult work.  

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