We live in a rainbow of chaos – Paul Cezanne

A editor friend of mine frequently does a total desk clean-up before starting a writing project. Papers cleared, files organized, surface sparkling. She says it clears her mind for something new. “I can literally see what I’ve accomplished. It’s a small task but it makes me feel like I’m ready to get started with work.”

We all inherently know the satisfaction we feel when we’ve completed a project, regardless of the size. The simple act of crossing a task off a to-do list provides immediate gratification on several levels. (Some even write out a task that has already been completed simply to then cross it off.)

What is it about the completion of tasks that makes us feel so good?

Completing tasks delivers a burst of dopamine to our brains.  Anticipating and then finishing a task (even a small one, good news!) provides a chemical reward that our brain enjoys.

That dopamine hit also inspires us to get more things done and take on the next items on our to-do list so we can experience that pleasant feeling again. It’s a healthy “addiction” cycle.

Completing tasks also contributes to our human desire for cognitive closure. This term was coined by the social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, who defined it as an individual’s desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity – a drive for certainty in the face of a less than certain world.

In this complicated era, completing tasks provides a much-needed sense of structure. No, you can’t fix the world…but you can fix that broken shower-head in your bathroom. You can join your local citizens’ group online. You can write that next section of your literature review. We exert meaningful action where we can, right?

For those more homebound than usual (namely almost all of us!) it’s important to use this time in the best ways possible. Even if your weekly task list seems overwhelming with multiple work and family responsibilities, defining multiple micro-steps within your day can create mentally comforting structure.

It may be prime time to take on the larger project that has taken a backseat for too long, like finishing your dissertation, writing a novel, completing artwork, learning a new skill…the list goes on. Only you know what’s on your list, but if you’re reading this blog your dissertation may be on the top of that list!

We’re worried but we’re not powerless to get things done, to lean into self-improvement and work towards goals. Completing tasks grounds us in the here-and-now of our lives which is critical for balanced mental health.

Lean in with greater vigour. Dare to create. It’s odd to say, but now may be the ideal time to do it.