Should you finish what you started, in one go?
Suppose you are writing a letter to one of your friends. The
ball-point pen runs out of ink after you have written a few sentences.
Do you calmly pick up the first working pen you find and get on with it?
Or do you search the house for a pen with the same colour ink, get
side-tracked and end up sorting knickknacks all day, leaving the letter
Or are you the type of person who when reading one of those spy
novels literally cannot put down, even at 2.00 am when you have an
important appointment at 9.00 am?
In either case, there is something wrong in your behavioural system.
Modern psychologists say that average humans have an innate drive to
finish what they start. But the individual allotments of that drive vary
- from the procrastinator to the compulsive completer. The ideal, they
say, is the medium. To achieve that balance, it may help understand how
this “completion drive” works.
Bluma Zeigarnik, a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist discovered
what is today known as Zeigarnik effect. In psychology, the Zeigarnik
effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks
better than completed tasks.
Zeigarnik noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still
unpaid orders. However, after the completion of the task - after
everyone had paid - he was unable to remember any more details of the
orders. She realised that when we hold things in short-term memory, we
have to rehearse them otherwise they disappear, like a light going out.
This requires effort, and the more things we are rehearsing the more
effort. The waiter’s trick is thus to keep spinning the plates of the
open orders whilst letting those which are completed fall.
The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their study,
during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated
subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students
who complete study sessions without a break.
If we apply the Zeigarnik effect to human relationships, we will note
that “between lovers, arguments that end with confessions or amends tend
to be soon forgotten, although their legacy is a stronger”; but when a
rejected bid for support and understanding leads to “a regrettable
incident that goes unaddressed, the hurt remains accessible in our
active memory, available to be rehashed again and again. Like a stone in
one’s shoe, the recollection becomes a constant irritant that leads to
an increase in negative attitudes about the partner.
If you look around you, you will notice the Zeigarnik effect pretty
much everywhere. It is especially used in media and advertising. Have
you ever wondered why cliff-hangers work so well or why you just can’t
get yourself to stop watching that series on the TV (just one more
episode)? This is one of the oldest tricks in the TV business. The hero
seems to have fallen off a mountain but the shot cuts away before you
can be sure. And then those fateful words: “To be continued…”
The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same
technique. Many of his works, such as Oliver Twist, although later
published as complete novels, were originally serialised. His
cliff-hangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that his
American readership would wait at New York docks for the latest
installment to arrive by ship from Britain. They were that desperate to
find out what happened next.
The Zeigarnik effect means good news for procrastinators: you are
less likely to procrastinate once you actually start a task. You’re more
inclined to finish something if you start it. So how do you actually get
started? It depends on what kind of procrastinator you are.
If you’re likely to procrastinate because you’re faced with a big
project, then don’t think about starting with the hardest chunk of work.
Start with what seems manageable in the moment.You’ll be more likely to
finish the task simply because you started. The Zeigarnik effect shows
us that the key to beating procrastination is starting somewhere…
What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating
procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.
Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get
so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our
projects.The sense of foreboding can be a big contributor to
The completion of closure and the Zeigarnik Effect works smoothly for
most people. But for some of us at two extremes - chronic non-completers
and compulsive finishers, need to tune up completion drive.
Chronic non-completers typically have homes cluttered with
half-finished projects. They may be people with low frustration
tolerance and unrealistic expectations.They cannot stand present pain
for future gain, so they impatiently over-ride their completion
drives.Or they may be people with short-circuit completion efforts
simply because of a fear of failing or never producing a finished
product because of fear of being criticised.Or maybe they do not believe
they deserve the success.
If you are one of them, you can change the resultant behaviour.
First, you must understand the reasons for not finishing what you have
begun. Conquering this finish phobia needs a combination of time
management and smart psychology. William Knaus, a renowned psychologist
lists three steps:
Make a schedule – write down all the things that have to be done and
estimate how long they are going to take. Set deadlines that fall before
jobs actually must be done.
Develop willpower in small doses. By forcing yourself to complete a
modest task, you gradually strengthen your completion drive.
Flow with your attention span rather than against it. Suppose your
attention is 15 minutes and you have a one-hour job. As soon as your
mind wanders, stop working and do something for 30 seconds to improve
your blood circulation - go get a glass of water. Then spend another 15
minutes concentrating on your work. That way you spend three minutes on
interruptions and 57 minutes of working.
Many people do not need such advice. They have no trouble finishing
what they start. However, people who are obsessed with completion can
lose perspective. A compulsive completer’s life can be too neat, tight
Putting the brakes on an obsessive completion drive makes it possible
to enjoy life along the way. On the job the compulsive completer may be
a workaholic. Moderating this can do more than get a person out of
office on weekends to be with his family. It can give time to deal with
the problems that compelled him to be a workaholic in the first place;
self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy or inability to deal with tensions.
Compulsive completers risk being stuck in a dead-end job not to be a
quitter. Evaluate the payoff of such patience. Will it get you anything
more than a grandfather clock after 25 years?