My client, Lisa does not know how to stop. Lisa is a 39-year old university professor. Like most professors, when it is time to prepare her student’s reading list, she reviews hundreds of books and academic journal articles. That was overwhelming enough, but to ‘keep up’ now, she also has to go through videos, podcasts, and blogs. “I’m afraid I’ll miss something really vital to their education”, Lisa says. She researches and prepares, prepares and researches until the final deadline for submitting the reading list looms close and large. “I have no idea when to stop because I have no idea when I’m done,” Lisa confesses.
It’s a common complaint these days. In the era of endless, information is infinite, but time is not. Time is finite. So at some point quantity has to be qualified. What is a sufficient quantity to sift thru? How much is enough to qualitatively satisfy a need? It’s increasingly difficult to know. Too Big To Know by David Weinberger traces the history of facts as they evolved from scarce, isolated foundations of finite bodies of knowledge to the present day where knowledge and facts are common, group-oriented, and readily available. The concept of rare has gone away in an era of endless when things are equally and endlessly available.
If you find it difficult to stop, here are some tactics you can use:
Practice the Law of Diminishing Returns which is the tendency for a continuing effort toward a particular goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved. Or, as a client in Houston once put it, Stop when the lemonade ain’t worth the squeeze.
My client Debra is an HR director for a law firm. Her job is to find qualified prospective attorneys to work for the firm. The longer she keeps looking, the more the open post continues to go unfulfilled. The other attorneys have to add more work to their plate to cover for the unfulfilled position, and the as-yet unhired attorney’s contributions are forestalled. Debra says, “It’s just not worth it to the company for me to keep going and going and going with my recruitment efforts.”
Spell ‘done’ out ahead of time. Debra decided to prospect the 10 best candidates as a result of her best efforts exerted over 30 days. Any more effort applied actually diminishes the return.
Keep in mind that progress towards closure is a quality of life issue. It is good for your mental health to complete things. David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame rightly observes that, “When we spend a lot of psychic energy on half-closed loops, on things left undone, we waste time and energy that could be put to better use elsewhere.”
Ask yourself, outloud, what are the 2 things I can do right now to bring this task/project to closure, to get it off my to do list? It might be to make a call, find something on the web, get a question answered, or take even a small action towards closure.
Close before you open especially in the morning. Finishing something early in the day builds a “meaning reservoir”, an expert on obsessive behavior once told me. Completing just one thing early in the day can give meaning to the entire day.
Focus on one or two big wins for the day.