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Can we Efficiently Work Under Pressure and Still be Happy?

We have grown so used to working under pressure in the modern world that it has become accepted as a fact of life.

Of course work will cause stress and pressure; what else would you expect?

Yet this accepted wisdom is far from the whole truth and, worse, it normalizes a dangerous situation.

Stress can cause depression, anxiety, and put strain on your heart as well as your mind, all of which is detrimental (at best) to work efficiency. Therefore the circumspect boss will strive to reduce the stress of the workplace where possible, not just out of kindness but because it will improve productivity and reduce the probabilities of workers needing time off to recover from stress-related conditions.

Fortunately it is quite possible to establish such a workplace by adopting the right policies and providing strong, supportive leadership.

Keys to Efficient and Happy Workplace

One important answer to the problem of creating a happy workplace is to orient it around completing tasks.

The basis for this proposition is something called the Zeigarnik Effect, discovered in the 1920s by Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.

She observed an interesting phenomenon in restaurant staff: when an order was not completed, they would remember it indefinitely but, when the order was fulfilled, they would forget it very rapidly. Zeigarnik went on to prove this effect with experiments, and found it holds true pretty much universally among humans.

The Zeigarnik Effect seems to be a deep-seated psychological mechanism that helps us remember important tasks and related information, then discard it when the task has been completed.

This has obvious utility, but the downside is that if a task goes uncompleted it will remain in the mind as an insistent reminder which just won’t quit. In short it is not in our nature, as humans, to leave tasks unfinished and to do so creates a sense of unease and intrusive thoughts about the task in question.

This has obvious implications for work efficiency and stress management at work. If tasks are not completed, the people assigned to them will feel a sense of disquiet about them.

An incomplete task has much greater implications than just the task itself, it will also be an ongoing distraction that hinders productivity and increases stress, all of which can create an unpleasant feedback effect making future tasks harder to complete as well.

What is interesting is that the reverse is true as well. It is well-known that completing tasks, especially those which are moderately challenging but ultimately achievable, is a highly satisfying and fulfilling thing.

A superb example of this is in the computing field — there are huge numbers of programs out there available entirely for free, created by people who are seeking to address a problem and challenge themselves. There is no desire for profit here, only for providing a solution to a problem. It is the process of completing a task that brings about satisfaction more than anything else.

How to Positively Activate Zeigarnik Effect

So for increasing work efficiency, we come to the question of how best to harness and positively activate the Zeigarnik Effect?

1# Avoid Negativity

First of all optimism is important. Being realistic is too, of course, but negative feelings and ideas have a much easier time taking root in people’s minds than positive ones, so avoid negative introductions and descriptions of tasks as much as possible.

2# Breakdown Task to Small Pieces

Proper task management is very helpful. Train yourself and train your workers to adopt good practices for approaching tasks, for example by breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones, keeping a list of those tasks at hand, and reviewing them as you complete them and cross them out. This will help to both provide satisfaction at task completion and to produce the motivation to move on to the next task.

3# Follow Through Completion Persistently

Third, and finally, be relentless about seeing tasks through to completion. This is vital for harnessing the strategy to improve work efficiency rather than letting it cause distractions and stress. Properly used the Zeigarnik Effect can be very helpful in providing an impetus for concentration and drive to completing tasks.

4# Proper Delegation

It’s an unfortunate truth that not every workplace task can be so well-targeted towards providing an appropriate challenge, but that issue can be mitigated and the other conclusions drawn from the Zeigarnik Effect hold true.

Mitigation is best done through knowing your staff and their capabilities and in figuring out how to best use them. Most significantly for work efficiency you want to make sure that tasks are seen through to completion and that you recognize these completions in a positive fashion.

Also remember that stress cannot be entirely avoided, but just as you can turn the Zeigarnik Effect to your own ends, so you can do the same with stress. Recognizing stress as a mechanism for meeting challenges instead of itself being a challenge to overcome makes a huge difference in health and happiness.

Appreciating why you feel stress and how the source of it is part of a bigger picture helps as well. Taking a different approach to stress won’t stop you feeling it, but it can make a big change to the effects it has on your performance and indeed your health.

The Zeigarnik Effect shows us that people do not like to leave tasks uncompleted, whilst we know that satisfaction comes from meeting challenges, and these are the keys to improving work efficiency.

As long as we use proper task management to see tasks through to completion, pressure can be harnessed towards constructive ends.

How do you feel about a project or task left uncompleted? Share a personal experience in the comments below.

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