We are plagued by a nagging sense of incompleteness. In this post, I will explain why that’s the case and what we can do about it.
Uncertainty, Choices, and Paralysis
In the past, it was clear when work was completed and there were few ways to complete it. Nowadays it’s hard to tell when work has been completed and almost infinite ways to complete it exist. With the ambiguity resulting from these two facts comes a nagging sense of incompleteness. It generates uncertainty that often feels like anxiety. This is partly because the part of our brain that deals with decision-making is the same part that deals with anxiety.
Viewed another way, we often think that the more choices we have the happier we will be. This is true to some extend. Having some choices makes us happier. But, having too many choices makes us feel worse. The more choices we have, the more likely it is that we are paralyzed by them. This is the case because we fear regretting our decisions. We think that one way to avoid these regrets is to make no decision – so we don’t. But, the decisions we avoid stay in our heads as choices to be made. They remain and increase our options for how we could do our work. As a result, they further increase our uncertainty, anxiety, and general discontent. When we try to focus, we remember these shunned decisions and all the other things that we could be doing. We doubt if it’s right to work on the thing we are currently working on. Our doubts enhance weak signals unrelated to our current goals and make us prone to distractions.
What can we do about this?
The Solution: Constraints, Satisfaction and Sufficient Action
First, we can introduce constraints in the form of habits, goals and values into our lives.
Constraints are choices made in advance. When we have a set morning routine, we don’t have to decide what to do each morning. When we have the goal of written a paper for one of our courses at university in two weeks we have a serious constraint but are also more certain that it’s worth it to spend our time reading academic books. When we value honesty and never lying, we don’t have to contemplate if and how to distort the truth if someone asks us a question.
Second, we can understand how satisfaction works.
Satisfaction is the pleasurable feeling that we experience when we complete something correctly. It lets us know that we have completed our work. Satisfaction can only be achieved through action. Thinking is not a solution. We can’t think this nagging sense of incompleteness away with logic or rationality. We need to physically do some action or do the behavior related to our unfinished or uncertain task or it won’t go away.
Third, we can use sufficient action.
Sufficient action means that we do sufficient action on a goal so that our brain is satisfied. Normally our unfinished goals cause intrusive thoughts during an unrelated task. These thoughts distract us from focusing. A sufficient action to eliminate these interferences is to formulate specific plans for the completion of our unfulfilled goals. We don’t even need to write down everything we need to do. We just need to write down the next step in whatever we need to do, to gets rid of the nagging feeling that our unfinished tasks produce.
Thanks to technology and the internet the possibilities of what we can do have increased dramatically. This increase in options and choices causes a nagging sense of incompleteness in our lives.
The uncertainty and anxiety we feel can be reduced by habits, goals and values that constrain us, by doing enough physical action until we feel satisfied and by planing sufficiently, so that we can eliminate interference from shunned decisions. By doing this we can become calmer, more satisfied and more focused.
The video “Why are you Uncertain, Unfocused and Anxious? What should we do about it?” by Joseph Everett inspired this essay. It also contains the science behind it. ↩︎