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.
A Simple Trick To Tell If You're Ready To Quit - Or If You Are Just Hitting A Dip
We all hit points where we want to give up on a creative endeavour. Here's a trick to tell if you're hitting a rough patch - or if it's time to pack it in.
In any endeavour, we can hit a point where we ask, "Is this really worth it?". We are not getting anywhere, it feels like a thankless task and we wonder if all that enthusiasm and excitement we had in the early days was ultimately misplaced.
It can be really hard to know what the right step is for us to take. Our minds might say one thing, our hearts another. Are we in denial? Are we refusing to face facts? Are we just committed to this because we have been doing it for so long?
There is actually a psychological term that's related to this latter question: it's called the "sunk cost fallacy".
It basically refers to those times when we find it really hard to walk away from something simply because we have invested so much time and effort in it.
We can't face the possibility that our precious time has been wasted, so we plough on, despite all signs to the contrary telling us to stop.
How Can We Tell When It's Time To Quit?
But the truth is, as Marie Forleo points out in the video below, some things are worth walking away from.
And when we do, we will feel better for it, possibly relieved in fact.
But there are other times where the choice is not so clear.
Say it is a passion and it means a lot to you and you are not getting anywhere. What then? How can we tell if we are deluding ourselves or if we have just hit a bump in the road?
"The 10-Year Rule"
Forleo says "The 10-Year Rule" is worth remembering here.
She explains that if you really want to know how committed you are - to anything - it is to ask yourself a simple question:
"If you actually did quit this, how would you feel 10 years from now?"
If you feel a gut wrench right now even considering this question, you have your answer.
You might have just found yourself in a "dip", i.e., a rough patch. You might be suffering from burnout and just need to take a break, step back and recap.
If, however, you feel neutral - or a sense of relief - then you also have your answer.
Like anything in life, if you are happy and willing to walk away from it - for good - it might not have been right for you in the first place.