Just yesterday, I received an email nudging me gently to do something I could have sworn I had already done. I hadn’t. So, what made me think I had done it? It turns out that we can mistake an intention for an action. I meant to respond to that email, and therefore, my brain checked it off as a completed task. Thanks, brain, for leading me astray.
If you’ve ever done this, you may be relieved to find out that it’s totally normal—and common, according to a new study from Dolores Albarracin and her University of Illinois colleagues. Their research revealed that when we intend to do something, it can trigger our brains to think we actually did it. They found that the effect is even more substantial when intending to do something is very similar to doing it.
In my case, I intended to respond to that email, and I took almost all the same steps. I opened it, read it and thought of my answer. Then, most likely, I got distracted and never came back to write the response and hit send. But because it was close to finished, my brain checked it off my to-do list.
So, how do we solve this problem that threatens to challenge our productivity, especially when we’re working from home and are surrounded by constant distractions. According to Albarracin’s research, there’s a simple answer: write things down.
Write it Down to Ensure Accountability
It turns out that written checklists can help us accomplish what we need to do. If you’re never sure whether or not you’ve completed a task or not, writing that task on a list and then literally crossing it off when you finish it can help keep you grounded—and accountable. And I’m not talking about an app, or a reminder on your phone. The study found that the act of writing down whether you did something, or just intended to do it, helps us remember things correctly.
While it certainly seems impractical to write down, "I intend to answer the following 23 emails today," you can train yourself to mark emails as unread when you haven’t responded. Then, with a quick glance, you can tell if you actually did something or just thought you did it.
I managed to get my schedule under control by religiously writing every due date on my calendar—every meeting and every activity I needed to control. My children don’t have the same school schedule every day, so I noted their schedules on my calendar. This enables me to make appointments or plans for them without having to wrack my brain. I open up my calendar and can clearly see that Offspring #1 doesn’t have any afternoon classes that day, so I’m free to make her a dentist appointment. (I should note that my children don’t appreciate this.)
You can do the same with team member’s calendars—not to micromanage, but to simply help yourself stay on top of things. You can see what your direct reports or peers are focusing on at the moment, which can help you plan your schedule when you coordinate with them. And it can help you anticipate when they’re feeling overworked.
By encouraging your employees to keep checklists and calendars as well, you can cut down on unfinished work and boost productivity. Plus, this added layer of organization can help both you and your workers be prepared at check-in meetings so that you can focus on goal setting, development and growth instead of trying to remember what’s already been accomplished.
Now, I’m going to check this article off my to do list. I don’t have an excuse, as I’m following my own suggestions.
For more from Suzanne Lucas, check out her column here.
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