In a famous (and now controversial) 2005 study, Brian Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University sat participants down in front of an innocent looking bowl of soup.
In actuality, the soup wasn’t so innocent.
While he instructed participants to eat only as much they wanted, he suspected that most participants would no doubt be unconsciously driven by a thought so many of us were taught as children:
“I better finish it all.”
So participants ate — and then as time passed, they ate some more. And more and more. Seemingly with no end in sight.
That it us until, mercifully, Wansink tapped each participant on the shoulder and let them in on a little secret.
The bowls of soup were rigged. They were literally bottomless.
Small hidden tubes connected the bowls to machines that, as the soup levels receded, slowly and surreptitiously refilled them.
While the study’s findings are now very much in dispute, its design makes for a good metaphor.
Because, dear professional, I hate to break it to you, but you are in a similarly cruel experiment.
However, instead of being presented with a bowl of soup, you are presented with a to-do list.
And whether you realize it or not, as you tear through that list, furiously trying to cross off one task after another, you are unconsciously being driven by that very same thought:
“I better finish it all.”
And this seemingly reasonable thought is killing your chance at work-life balance.
Because I, your humble author, am here to tap you on the shoulder and let you in on a little secret.
Your to-do lists are rigged. They’re just as bottomless as those bowls of soup.
Just as those bottomless soup bowls were connected to a machine that refilled them automatically, our to-do lists are connected to a machine that does the same: our brains.
To illustrate this refilling feature of the brain, do me a favor and perform the following exercise:
Look around whatever room you’re currently in and ask: what are all the things I need to do in here?
Here, I’ll go first.
As I look around my office, I notice two books sitting on my bookshelf that I’ve been meaning to read.
Now I’m looking at little hole in the wall from a recently removed painting that really should get spackled.
And then, in the corner, I see my half-knitted scarf riddled with mistakes. When exactly am I going to take that knitting class which will teach me how to fix those mistakes?
Try this exercise yourself and you’ll quickly realize what I did: you could go on identifying tasks forever. Forever.
The fact is that the human brain is a task-generating machine. And so no matter how many tasks we end up completing, it always makes sure there are more to take their place.
As a result, the recurring thought most professionals repeat to themselves dozens of times a day without even realizing it, “I better finish it all,” is utterly misguided.
It’s guaranteed to set you up with expectations that will go unfulfilled. This in turn makes you feel panicked and stressed throughout your workday, and ultimately, at the end of your workday, guilty for not getting enough done.
Which then makes us either work more, or during our off time, ruminate incessantly about how we should be working more.
So what can we do to preserve our work-life balance?
Well, whenever you find yourself in a game that is so obviously rigged, there’s only one thing to do: stop playing it.
Then, play a different one instead.
Instead of thinking “I better finish it all,” think a different thought:
“I better finish what’s important.”
This thought affirms a very elementary but often forgotten truth: not all tasks are created equal.
And while it’s impossible to get everything done, if we can complete, or at least make progress on, the few most valuable items on our list, we ought to feel like we’ve spent our day well.
Of course, this thought is worthless unless you spend a second before each workday performing a simple exercise: identify what those 1–3 most important tasks are.
If you do perform these two things every single day, religiously — (1) repeat the thought “I better finish what’s important,” and (2) identify what those few important tasks are — a tremendous change takes place.
Now, at the end of the day, when you look back and you’ve actually made progress on the few tasks that matter the most, you’ll feel proud. Admittedly, there still might be a pang of guilt about the stuff you didn’t get done. Such is the human condition.
But alongside that guilt, will also live a feeling of progress. Of self-determination. Of having made a small dent in your universe. One that gives you just enough permission to shut off your computer for the day and enjoy your evenings and weekends.
It will finally give you the work-life balance that you’ve always wanted. That you’ve always deserved.
If you ask me, that’s a game worth playing.