Quick, Easy-to-Finish Tasks Build Momentum in the Morning


Illustration by Xoana Herrera.

People are obsessed with morning routines. What was Ben Franklin thinking about when he started his day at 5am? How does Stephen King get into the rhythm for writing? What question did Steve Jobs look in the mirror and ask himself every morning? (Apparently, it was: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”)

I, too, believe that having a daily routine—and how you start your day in particular—is incredibly important. But what if you’re not a morning person? Or what if you’re just having one of those days where you’re “off to slow start”? What’s the best way to get into the flow of accomplishing things when you’re not at your best?

Much of how productive we will be on any given day hinges on a concept called “completion bias.” Recent studies have shown that our brains are wired to seek completion. When you recognize a task as complete, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel good and makes you want to repeat the behavior again to feel more pleasure.

What this means is that we are predisposed to focus on easy tasks that we can complete quickly, rather than long-term projects that take a long time to finish. We like the feeling of checking things off our list, and we like to see progress.

As you might have already guessed, this thirst for completion is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it makes us highly susceptible to email and social media addiction. Part of the reason we’re so attached to the idea of Inbox Zero is because we want to get that satisfying hit of completion when we “finish” dealing with our email. And, as our unread message count ticks down, we get to experience very clear little mini-completions along the way. Similarly, we adore posting to Twitter and Instagram because it’s a simple, one-and-done task. Write 140 characters or less, click “tweet”, and you’re done. Mission accomplished.

We are predisposed to focus on easy tasks that we can complete quickly, rather than long-term projects that take a long time to finish.

On the other hand, the scientists who uncovered completion bias DID discover a way to hack it for positive productivity. They found that if workers started their day by doing just a few quick, mundane tasks, the workers performed better on the more demanding tasks that they tackled afterwards.

As the researchers, Francesa Gino and Bradley Staats, explain:

Your brain releases dopamine when you achieve goals. And since dopamine improves attention, memory, and motivation, even achieving a small goal can result in a positive feedback loop that makes you more motivated to work harder going forward.

Ultimately, the workers who completed the mundane tasks first were happier, felt more motivated, and got more done than the group that just tackled their to-do lists without “easing into it.”

This suggests that a slight revision to the classic “do your most important task first” productivity advice might be necessary—particularly for those of us who are juggling a lot of tasks.

If you’re struggling with tackling your hard creative work early in the day, try starting with a few easy-to-finish tasks that will give you that quick hit of completion. If you can, I would still recommend refraining from doing reactive work that might cause anxiety, like checking your email, first thing. Rather, do some simple tasks that give you a strong sense of completion but are not particularly challenging or stressful, such as invoicing, organizing your desk, or reviewing a contract.

Use those easy tasks to build momentum and confidence before plunging into the creative work that will really test your brainpower.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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