Prosilience #4: Unfinished Business
How to stop your dripping "energy faucet."
“Anything you can’t let go of you have to carry with you forever.”
Last week I helped throw a party honoring the end of a sailing club that actually shut down more than a year ago. Although it was a lovely event, my main feeling was one of relief at finally getting it done and crossing it off my list. This got me thinking about Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik. I’ll get back to her in a minute.
How many “works in progress” are on your list? What activities have you begun but not finished? Books you have started or put on your reading pile, incomplete projects that are sitting in a drawer or computer file someplace, plans you’ve made that are still on the “someday” list, emails you’ve filed to read later that are still sitting in your inbox…whether you’re aware of it or not, these things continue to consume small amounts of your personal energy, creating a slow drain on your available resources. That’s where Dr. Zeigarnik comes in. Her research found that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than ones that are successfully completed—“open files” in our brain are still active, while those that are closed are checked off and filed away.
While this may sound silly—after all, how much energy can an unread email consume?—I did a little research and discovered that a leaky faucet that drips at the rate of one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons per year1. Likewise, all those teensy little energy drains can take their toll on your well-being over time. One of the Prosilience building blocks is sustainability of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. A strong supply of energy enables you to use your resilience “muscles” more effectively to address the large and small challenges you encounter.
Two Ways to Stop a Leak
There are two basic ways to stop a leak.
One is to finish what you have started. In the case of the sailing club, making the effort to get the event on the calendar, plan it, and get it done was enough to close that file in my head. I recently finished chipping away at a long Kindle book and got it off my list as well. Answering the emails, completing the woodworking project, making the phone call, taking the trip—all of these are ways to check unfinished items off your list and reclaim the energy they held.
The other is to purposefully let things go. This involves making a decision to remove tasks, things, and even relationships from your life with the acknowledgement that you will not invest further energy in them. Perhaps the best-known example of this strategy is Marie Kondo’s approach to “tidying.” She describes a process for systematically getting rid of clutter and harmoniously arranging the things you choose to keep. Deciding to get rid of files or delete emails without going through them, getting rid of a half-finished project, and giving away books from your “pile” are ways of letting things go. One of my favorite examples comes from Hendricks & Ludeman’s book The Corporate Mystic, in which they describe an approach to “high-firing” people who are draining your energy—not just cutting them off, but ending the relationship with integrity.
Think about the things on your “drip” list. Are there decisions you can make about what is most important for you to complete and what you are ready to let go of?
Why We Let Things Drip
When it’s tough to do either of these—complete something or let it go, it can be helpful to look at what’s underneath that. Here are some of the reasons we let things continue to drip:
Completing things and making decisions take energy. Fixing a leaky faucet is a project—you need to invest time, energy, and/or money in getting it done before you can see the benefits. The same is true for fixing energy leaks—you need to invest some effort up front to complete something or to make the decision to let it go before you can get the energy payoff. The good news is that if you start with something small, it is likely to liberate a little energy that you can roll forward into the next decision; you can build momentum as you go.
Other people are involved. Sometimes our energy leaks involve other people—work or family projects or plans; decisions that need input from others or that would require them to adapt or adjust in some way; objects that others have emotional attachment to; tough conversations we would need to initiate…
To get things moving, we often need to be the ones to start. This can feel overwhelming. In my experience, the best first step in these situations is to get a clear picture in your own mind of what you would like to see happen, and what that would require from others. Then you can look for one small action you can take to set things in motion.
Possible futures are closed. As we let go of books, plans, objects, and relationships, we often have to confront the fact that as humans we are mortal and have a finite amount of time and energy. We need to select from among the many projects, trips, and possible futures we might envision for ourself those that are most important to our sense of personal meaning and purpose. When I gave away books on quilting, backpacking, and motorcycle touring, it was an implicit choice to say goodbye to some of the dreams I have had in order to focus my attention on others that are more important. It made me sad, but I also recognized that every time I looked at those books, a little of my energy was dripping away.
If this idea resonates with you, I invite you to start with something small—something you can complete and get closure on—rather than trying to make The Big List of All the Things. Pick one book to finish. Unsubscribe from one email list. Give away one thing you don’t need. See what that feels like. If you get a little surge of energy, do the next thing. Over time, you may feel like taking on some bigger things.
Here are some of the things that have been helpful to me:
Using an app to capture things that need closure. I use the free version of Trello, which lets me set up multiple lists with “cards” on each one that I can drag around. I have a list of current to-dos, a list of things I’m waiting for other people to respond to, and a backlog list of things that I eventually want to get to. I also have a “today” list, and I drag a few things onto that list each day so I can just focus on those without having to think about all the rest.
Understanding and managing energy flow. I do my best project work in the morning, and find that that time gets interrupted with meetings, it’s hard for me to make progress on writing and other things. I’ve started arranging my schedule accordingly wherever possible, and it’s worked really well.
Biting the bullet/making decisions. I recently resigned from a book club I’d been part of for a few years. Doing this meant having a couple of personal conversations that felt yucky, but it’s now off my calendar. When I started going through my electronic files, I kept coming up on one big folder that represented a potential project, but had some complications. I got stuck. I started calling it the “hairball.” I decided that I needed to either just delete the whole folder from my system and put it behind me or get going on the project. In this case I decided to go forward, but there are other similar folders that are going in the trash.
Freeing your energy is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself. I hope I’ve given you some fresh ideas and inspiration to get you started.