Of undone tasks and product(ive) experiences

It’s fascinating that the more you learn how your mind works, the more you want to keep doing it. The psychology of mind is a never-ending sea, and it amazes me as to how the same patterns can apply across everything—from building products to buying groceries. One such superpower is the ability of our mind to use an unfinished behavior for seeking closure, in turn keeping our actions at an excited state. Wondering how? Let’s discuss. 

As kids, we always loved the games aka PT period, something we fervently looked at to escape the continuous lectures. But, in most cases if we remember, these physical training hours were interlinked with the usual classes in such a way that they took a mid-space in the time table. Classes, followed by an interruption thanks to the games, and once again classes [some lucky folks would have had lunch right after the games, to satiate the growling tummy]. Tests, lessons, and classworks however interrupted, continue so smooth like they’d never been stopped in the first place. Okay, so what’s that wondrous thing about this otherwise normal stuff? 

Maybe we’ll know it here…you wake up with a song on your mind. Ah, it’s your favorite, and what happens? You keep humming it while brushing, then through bathing, and then? By almost mid-day, it’s almost a trite that you’d want to pay the first person who helps you get this stuck song out of your mind. You could do the favour by putting that money in your own savings—you’re that person. You just have to listen to that song from the start to the end once, just that, to stop your mental loop. So, why do we have that urge to put an end to that incomplete song in our head?

In both these examples, we see that an action that’s incomplete or unfinished continues to be on the top of your mind, pushing you to pick it up once again until it gets done. It’s similar to a psychology principle quoted by a Soviet psychologist, Bluma Ziegarnik, that indicates that an activity that’s interrupted gets most readily recalled. She was able to further research and prove her studies based on her professor, Kurt Lewin’s careful observation of waiters at restaurants. These waiters had an enormous power to remember unpaid bills of every order at every table—however, upon these bills getting paid, the waiters couldn’t remember the details. So?

Unfinished thoughts = Ready recollection

This is the very same reason why your mind obsesses over the unread emails in the inbox throughout the day until you get the time to read them. Or even why you look forward to a session that’s in the evening right from the time you wake up (if you’re like me!). I recently started keeping a journal under my pillow, to record the random ideas my mind comes up with just before I sleep. The surprising part is some days I write in the journal, and on the other days, I repeatedly think about these ideas that come to my mind by just gazing at the journal. In the morning, by looking at the journal again, I was able to easily recollect the (undone) thoughts I had the previous night. For a person who was obsessed with writing down every little thing that runs in my mind with the fear of forgetting to complete, this power of the mind to remember and recall unfinished thoughts was fascinating. 

Why do unfinished tasks take up space in your memory?

In Quantum Physics, we’ve learned about the ground state and excited state of a system. A system in the excited state has a higher energy level than the ground state and it can return to the ground state by emitting a photon with characteristic energy. Also, the system is metastable when it has a long-lived excited state. 

Imagine the human mind to behave like this system. When a task gets started, the mind basically moves up to the excited state, and remains in this state until the action gets completed. The longer it takes to complete the task, the more excited the mind is, and hence metastable. A similar reasoning is given by Field theory in psychology which states that when a task begins, the mind develops a task-specific tension, and this tension gets relieved only when the task is completed. Until then? Well, the more interruption, the tension sustains, urging the mind to move towards completion. 

So, how can product teams make use of this behavior?

In this so-called magical pattern of the mind, there are two things to look at—a period of inactivity and a time of completion. Here’s where we can take leverage of this. 

Productive procrastination:

This might look like an oxymoron, but it actually works. Most often we start something only to see our minds wander and take us to other thoughts. I’ve been there and made myself feel guilty for doing that too. But, of late, taking the meandering of mind as a sign of thoughtful exploration and procrastination has been helpful. Say for example, working on a new strategy, feature, or a campaign has the same basis too. You may start with a premise but looking for inspiration or building convictions over them may take you to multiple other sources before you think you even landed on something. Taking these as cues helps you sustain the original focus and (good) stress needed for completing the task in hand. Having outstanding to-dos all across your productive procrastination phase helps you get back to doing it in a better informed way.  

This is the same way how little things like coffee breaks, co-worker get togethers, brainstorming sessions, water-cooler breakouts, and many other collaboration sessions work, amidst your busy schedules. Of course, there are downsides to this in terms of spending too much time, but the upside is looking at the ‘unfinished’ nature of your busy schedule and seeing how much your mind wants to get back at it. All you’re doing is introduce that prolong phase and make it a bit more productive.

Focused captivity:

The next state that we’d experience is of attention and action—the actual time when the task completion happens. The previous phase of mind wandering surprisingly would have helped in making a mental prioritization of what’s pending and what needs more focus. In addition to this, people also use external cues like post-its, to-dos, and other visual formats for constantly recollecting what needs to be completed. This ‘captivity’ period also means the vacillating task tension finally rests down and helps us in doing the work. After hours of thinking about different ways to refine a feature flow, the random inspirations I got via various sources [you’d not believe if I quote card decks and soap bubble clusters, will you?] helped me sit down to decide the mocks. 

Isn’t this like elasticity too? Maybe. A kind of elastic exercise for your mind and hence all your work. Ultimately, this effect helps in bringing the balance to the actions we perform and the way we think. 

How do customers experience this?

The magic of unfinished tasks is not just for the makers but also the users. In fact, as everyday users of many applications, we’ve by far experienced this effect ourselves. 

Let’s take the onboarding in most of the SaaS products—there’s always a ‘quick tour’ that takes us through the different features and action flows. The technique that’s often used is a checklist mode that gives users the real-time knowledge not only about the actions completed, but also the leftover steps. The result? The mind starts to focus on incomplete stuff, pushing us to go further and complete the actions. 

It’s the same when we fill forms or our profiles inside some apps. A message that shows ‘90% of your profile is completed’ is to kick in our minds to finish that 10% very soon. And, why wouldn’t they use ‘10% needs to be completed’ one may ask? It’s because your mind believes into something that it has already started than looking at starting something afresh [10% to complete gives a feeling of induced work while 90% completed is in the flow of you doing it]

Even the easy-play section inside Spotify or any music platform is to pick up from where we leave, so we’re finally able to complete what we began [recollect the loop effect?]. Or even the double opt-in newsletters and engagement emails, that tell us to finish an incomplete action through subtle pushes to our inboxes. In a way, all of these are different forms of motivation for the customer of a product. 

Along the similar lines, it’s crucial to know that these undone-triggered effects shouldn’t be confused with fear-driven product engagement (or marketing) approaches. While it’s the tendency of a human mind to remember the unfinished tasks, the excitement towards completion is automatically driven and we just have to channelize that. FOMO tactics and fear-driven analogies are entirely different, negating this dopamine effect and putting the customers through strenuous steps. 

Contrary to the fact of completion, this excitement can actually lead to dropping some unfinished tasks in hand and moving in search of better to-dos as well. Either way, interrupted work leads to productive meandering, focused recalling, specific revisiting, and lots of welcoming ideas! Nothing to lose, right?