Why Some Things Are Best Left Undone
The Zeigarnik Effect teaches us the value of deliberately putting things off
It feels extremely satisfying coming to the end of a task, completing something, getting stuff done, particularly if it has taken a lot of work to do.
The joy of facing the next day with a clean slate.
While this might sound like something worth aiming for (and in certain cases it can be), it can also, paradoxically be hazardous for our productivity levels.
In fact, being too proficient at getting stuff done can be the very thing that can stop us from being able to get started the next day.
The Perils Of A Blank Slate
Any of us who have ever suffered from creative block knows how excruciating it is to stare endlessly at a blank page (figuratively or otherwise), praying for inspiration to come flooding in.
We all know that the magic never came that way.
That's why some of the best advice out there for creatives who find themselves in this position is just to write/create something, anything - even if it's complete drivel.
It gets the wheels turning and gives us something to work with (see Mark Manson's tip, the "Do Something Principle", and Tim Ferriss, with his "Two Crappy Pages").
The Zeigarnik Effect
But there's another, arguably easier, way.
It requires walking away from a creative task before it is done and, specifically, to resist the urge to complete it before we hit the hay.
That incomplete task will linger in our minds and compel us to go back to it. Our brains can't help it. We need closure.
This phenomenon is called The Zeigarnik Effect.
Named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the concept was inspired by an observation that waiters in a restaurant had an uncanny ability to remember details about orders only up until the point that the food had been served.
Once service was complete, so was any memory they had of the details of it.
It led Zeigarnik to later conclude that we had a significantly higher likelihood to recall unfinished tasks (and forget completed ones), as author and psychologist Adam Grant, notes in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World:
“Once a task is finished, we stop thinking about it. But when it is interrupted and left undone, it stays active in our minds."
These things left undone, which play on our minds, are called "Open Loops".
These "loops" or incomplete tasks, cause an internal tension in our minds, where we can't stop thinking about them, as Video essayist, Will Schoder explains in the video below:
"Your subconscious nags your conscious mind over and over again... It makes sense; you remember an incomplete task because your brain thinks it's important and completing that task enables you to forget about it."
But that's not all it does. It also boosts our motivation to do them.
"[Zeigarnik ] discovered a strong relationship between that memory of an incomplete task and a desire for cognitive closure. That is, if there is an objective that we committed ourselves to pursue - an open loop - we're highly motivated to close that loop in order to escape the intrusive thoughts and feelings it causes."
So having a task left undone is, by default, a kind of way round creative block and procrastination.
Always make sure we have something to do and we won't ever have to face the dreaded blank slate.
There is another term for this, according Grant. He calls it "Strategic Procrastination".
Strategic Procrastination is the deliberate act of putting something off to ensure it stays in our minds and that we pick it up again.
It also means giving ourselves the time and space we need to potentially come up with better ideas. And it has been unwittingly applied by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King throughout history, according to Grant.
So the next you want something to get up for and you are hellbent on increasing your chances of getting in "the zone", then put it down - whatever it is you're working on.
It will still be there tomorrow and you'll be thankful it is.
Stop Aiming High & Lower Your Standards. Sounds Like Bad Advice? Think Again
Some unconventional wisdom on getting your creative juices flowing
Tim Ferriss has some unusual advice: if you want to be good at something, don't aim for the stars. The secret is to aim much lower than that - even for the trash.
Why? It makes the task you are facing far less intimidating and easier-to-achieve.
And it is that feeling of achievement that gets the creative juices flowing.
What Kills Productivity
Feeling overwhelmed by a job-at-hand - i.e. living in a state of performance anxiety or creative paralysis - is a perfect breeding ground for creative block and procrastination to take root.
That feeling of overwhelm can often happen when we are thinking too big.
We are setting impossibly high standards for ourselves, placing obstacles in our path before we have even got started.
As Ferriss says in this clip from Creative Live, the question to ask at that point is:
"Am I making this harder than it needs to be?
If that's the case, then it needs to be nipped in the bud straight away. And to do that, says Ferriss, the trick is to set a challenge that is idiot-proof.
The Lesson Of IBM
He takes inspiration from IBM, of all companies, which, when it was at its height, was famous for having an "incredibly effective" sales-force that "smashed their quotas".
One of the reasons for this was IBM's policy of keeping sales targets very low, as Ferriss explains:
"They wanted the sales people to not be intimidated to pick up the phone. They wanted to build that sales momentum. And then people would overshoot their goals."
Which they did.
And it it this idea of aiming low that can be applied across all disciplines in order to give ourselves a kick-start, he argues.
"Two Crappy Pages"
For writers, it would mean this: instead of setting yourself an incredibly high goal of writing 10 brilliant pages of prose in a single sitting, simply aim for "two crappy ones".
The latter is far easier to do, is liberating in its nature as you can literally write anything - and most importantly, it will give you the feeling that you have achieved something.
It will be this feeling in itself, says Ferriss, that will ultimately help get your creative wheels turning and the doors of productivity will be far more likely to open:
"Alleviating that performance anxiety... allows you to overshoot that goal and continually succeed and... build that confidence and momentum."
So, the next time you're hitting that wall, ask yourself if it's set a bit high.
Are you expecting brilliance to come straight away? If so, firstly forgive yourself if it is having a paralysing effect.
And then take joy in the fact that not only is it perfectly OK to be a bit "crappy" at times - it could be exactly what is required.