Our series on reducing mental effort continues.

Solve problems fully

Incompletes and stress go hand-in-hand. When we’re stressed, we often want to race to the end of a project or task and call it done when it’s really 90% or 95% of the way to done. But even 99% done isn’t actually done.

Some projects – like Disneyland – are never fully done because they’re ongoing and always evolving. But other projects like writing and publishing an ebook can be fully completed. And of course there’s a gray area in the middle with some projects having a reasonably well-defined completion state along with long-term maintenance activities.

To the best of your abilities, try to clearly define the completion state for your projects. What is the very last action step, the completion of which marks the true finish line? When do you really get to call it over and done? When do you get to celebrate? When does your mind have permission to let go of thinking about it?

If you get a project to 99% completion, your mind can’t fully let it go. Some of your mental RAM is still churning over that remaining 1%, and this can continue to be an ongoing distraction.

If you possibly can, drive the rest of the project fully across the finish line, so you can really check it off as fully done. Otherwise if it’s distracting you emotionally, use the method from yesterday’s post to pre-process the distracting thoughts and feelings when they start nagging at you. Better yet is to process this task into a system, so you can continue tracking it outside of your mind.

When incompletes pile up, the background feeling of stress and anxiety can increase as well. Even if you don’t feel it much, you may notice that your mind isn’t as clear and sharp as it is when you’re at your best. Some of your mental energy is being wasted on refreshing all of these incompletes.

Now and then it can be wise to make a list of your incompletes and take a few weeks (or months) to drive as many of them as you can across the finish line.

Even when older items don’t seem urgent, they can still nag at you repeatedly. The best way to bring that nagging to an end is to fully finish them, all the way to 100% done.

When you bring a task or project all the way across the finish line, it’s very satisfying. You can feel this sense of relief in your mind when you’re able to finally let go of the project. Extra energy is freed up – energy that can now flow towards something else.

Pause the inflow

Sometimes we have too much inflow relative to our outflow, and we need to pause the inflow to process the backlog. If the size of your backlog is getting to you, and you’re becoming overly stressed and distracted, it may be wise to reduce your inflow.

Now and then I go into a mode where I say “no more yeses” for a while. I turn down most invitations, and I do my best not to accept or open new projects. I focus on clearing older items off my plate and closing open loops till I’ve freed up more capacity. This eventually leads to the point where I feel ready to start taking on something new, and then I go into a phase of saying yes more often.

I know it’s a good sign when I start feeling enthusiastic about new directions, new invitations, and new creative projects. When I start to dread new items being added to my plate, I know I need to tighten up a bit. If I start feeling a little bored with the routine, I know it’s time to invite some fresh inflow.

We can adjust the inflow that comes into our lives by being more resistant to decrease the inflow or more welcoming to increase the inflow. Of course this may be more effective in some areas of life than others. Sometimes the inflow just happens, and we have to deal with it. But other times we can pull back a little to free up more capacity.

When taking on a big project or dealing with a significant lifestyle change, it’s wise to adjust expectations regarding your capacity, so you don’t overextend yourself. When I’m creating a major new course (like I’m doing now with the Stature course, which is up to 47 published lessons so far), that takes a lot of focus every week. It’s predictable that during such times, I’ll have reduced capacity for other projects. Consequently, I’m more selective in my commitments when there’s a big project front and center. I know from experience just how easy it is to become overcommitted, so I like to be extra cautious about that.

Many new parents learn that having a baby can greatly reduce their capacity to invest as much in other areas of life. There’s a feeling of pulling inward towards the family during the first several months, and this effect may continue for many years albeit to a lesser extent. It’s easy to underestimate just how much a new baby can take over your life, so it’s wise to free up extra capacity and not take on major new projects when the baby is expected. Overcommitting yourself could easily lead to great stress and even more fatigue.

I know it can be difficult to pause the inflow sometimes, especially if you’re an ambitious person, and you like to keep driving major projects forward. It can be hard to slow down sometimes, knowing that some parts of life aren’t going to advance much.

Another issue is when you feel like you’re behind relative to where you’d like to be in life, and you experience a life event like a major illness or a new baby that reduces your capacity even more. This can lead to feeling frustrated or impatient, wanting to push even harder to advance.

But if you can learn to surrender during these times, it can be very beneficial. Often these are times of incubation. When your mind gets a chance to slow down and rest more, you can set yourself up nicely for times of great flow and enthusiasm afterwards.

There’s a certain wisdom to life, and it will often slow us down when what we’re doing isn’t all that effective anyway. If you’re running on a treadmill, and life keeps drawing you away from it, you could see this as an invitation to question whether you want to stick with the treadmill going forward.

I’ve notice the pattern that work that feels aligned still feels aligned when I need to slow down. In fact, sometimes it feels even more aligned when I slow down.

I hope you’re still enjoying this little series on reducing mental effort. I’m enjoying writing it. 🙂

We’ll continue with Part 5 tomorrow.