Yesterday I had a call with an old acquaintance, and while chatting about various team behaviours, he described a situation that reminded me of a topic I've been wanting to write on. It's called the Zeigarnik effect. In a nutshell, it's that we are haunted by unfinished work. Seriously – the brain won't let it go. Significantly, the brain has better recall for tasks not completed than for tasks completed.
The Zeigarnik effect relates to task-specific tension, which improves cognitive accessibility of context to the task. The tension is relieved at the completion of the task, but it persists if it is interrupted. Through continuous tension, information can be more easily remembered long-term. This is useful to know if one's desire is to remember information for an upcoming test, but less useful if your intention is deep, focused work.
The Ovsiankina effect is the related, insidious tendency to be distracted by unfinished tasks over the task at hand. When a task is interruptive, the brain will fixate on it, wanting to complete it. When attempting to focus elsewhere, the brain will continue to project intrusive thoughts related to the prior, uncompleted, task. This cognitive dissonance can be very frustrating, reducing our ability to focus effectively.
This has several implications on motivation when working with a team. The first is that it is critical to decompose large tasks into smaller pieces, so smaller pieces can be completed without interruption. Completion of the whole objective – no matter how small – enables the brain to completely unload the details of the task, allowing us to effectively change focus to whatever needs our attention next and dive in without any excess cognitive load. Consider adopting a "definition of done" that enables your team to clearly know when they can unload from a task.
The second implication is that we're twice as likely to remember work we haven't finished over work have finished. Therefore, there's a natural negative bias that can creep in, giving the impression that we aren't accomplishing our objectives at all, or not enough relative to our tasks on hold. As leads, it's important to recall and celebrate the successes that are happening across the team, and how they are contributing to team objectives.
My preferred place for this is in our team retrospectives, which happen at a regular cadence, but don't overlap with our weekly sprints. If I celebrate wins in a weekly meeting, I've found it can become a little expected, and forced, even, to come up with something. But by presenting it during a retrospective, where everyone is looking for some ideas to contribute from the past few weeks, accomplishments will be recognized from angles I might not even know about!
The third implication on motivation is to address the most significant technical debt has has been accruing on the sidelines. Once a quarter, clear it out. Either dedicate some time to wrap up the top items, or throw it out completely. Having a backlog of items you are are not likely to address will only make it harder for your team to unload from previous tasks.
And that's that. Keep it simple, keep the user stories small, get to the definition of done, and avoid the Zeigarnik effect!