The Gum-ball Effect and How to Deal With It

If I took everything that on my plate for the following week and made a list and then started to check things off one by one as I did them, I would have what I’ve called the “gum-ball affect.” One task replacing the last task, a continuous cascade of “to-do’s” filling up every space I get in my working day.

The gum-ball affect, like a gum-ball machine, is when you get one thing done and another simply falls ready for you to do. Your table is never empty.  For example you have a to do list on that list includes high priority, medium priority and some catch up reading. When you get something done, you just fill the space with something that’s been sitting waiting to be done.

It’s probably an executives worst nightmare, this gum-ball effect. It fills the space that was meant for recovery, a reward for getting something done.

The gumball effect means that instead of celebrating a closure on a task with space and emptiness, call this recovery, (balance time) the space is filled with yet another “needs to be done” task.

If I listed everything that needs to be done on a list it would extend from Sydney to Melbourne. So if I operate on the gum-ball effect I will have an infinite number of gum-balls, tasks, ready to drop into place and fill up my space for the rest of my life. I would end up needing to take holidays and extended breaks, forced separation from my work, like weekends away, in order to get the space to be me. And it’s exactly that way of operating that leads to regret. At work the gum-ball effect leads to an exponentially diminishing probability that my performance in each of the tasks I do will be my best and that my interpersonal relationships will be tainted with unnecessary emotion. But the worst of it is at home.

The gum-ball effect is a habit that doesn’t always stop at work. At home, there’s just one issue after another, one conversation about kids, renovations, moving house, new babies, holidays, budgets, potential jobs and so on. The gum-ball effect at home means, intimacy is just conversations about an infinite spread of “stuff” and when one thing is settled, another pops up to take its place. The long term effect of this is one or both people feels unsatisfied, and that leads to dissatisfaction and in turn leads to messed up agenda’s at work.

Instead of the gumball affect its very wise to create an hourly list of those things that need to be done and could be done and instead of trying to get the next hours work done in the space created by effective work practice in this hour, choose some me time. That meantime must, by definition mean standing up, leaving the building, emptying your head, enjoying nature. I mean some people can stand at a window and enjoy nature, these micro-breaks. But the most important thing is they are breaks.

The gumball effect leads to overwhelm because it’s based on the premise that there is an end to the list of things that can be done in a day. I encourage, especially those people with very creative minds, to chart their week with hourly task brackets and not allow the next hour of tasks to intrude on the last one. But it also means that if things don’t get done in this hour then there has to be a rationalisation otherwise it’s like a train wreck trying to fit what didn’t get done into this hour which pushes what needed to be done in this hour to the next etc.

One step at a time is the only way to walk in nature and therefore it may be a perfect parallel to bring nature to work and recognise that these micro-breaks are an essential element of maintaining harmony and rhythm at work. It also means being rather precise about interruptions because those will mess up hourly task list and typically flick you into the gumball effect.

For me, micro-breaks need to make me feel like I’ve just started work at the beginning of the day. Sometimes the micro-breaks need to be more diligent than others especially when I’ve had a series of rather intense tasks. Then I might even try to lie down or sit back in my chair and close my eyes for some genuine recuperation. Mental fatigue affects sportspeople and is often more crucial to performance than physical fatigue. This is where its conspicuous. But mental fatigue affects decisions, communication, productivity, quality control, customer relations, innovation, disruption, engagement and self-motivation in business life to an even greater degree.

So using the antidote to the gumball affect is vital for a business person to ensure they sustain recuperative practices throughout the day and don’t go home burnt out. This is the commitment of an individual who has decided to integrate nature into their working practice. To go home with more energy than they came to work with in the morning. That’s a beautiful gift if, and only if family relationships are as important as work.