There is an interesting story about Ernest Hemingway. They say that whenever he walked away from writing for the day he always stopped in the middle of a sentence. With the stress of that unfinished sentence lingering in his mind, he could not wait to get back to work the next morning. Of course, when he came back to his work hours or days later, he not only felt a sense of urgency to write, but he could easily pick up where he left off.
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He had memorialized his train of thought. And he felt that urge to get back to work. Goodbye Procrastination!
Get Back to Work
That impetus to get back to the desk is called the Ovsiankina Effect. Basically, it is easier to resume an interrupted task. This is not willpower and won’t necessarily keep you on your diet. But, if you leave the spreadsheet cell as is, without adding its formula, the Ovsiankina Effect suggests you will be so driven to finish that formula — it will drive you back to it.
We have been taught to finish things. Our meals, our homework, our piano practice. This theory contradicts that early lesson. Instead, a mid-stream interruption may make it easier to get back to work. It’s a great tip for natural procrastinators, or for those preoccupied with the linear order of finishing one thing before going on to another.
But Hemingway’s habit had another interesting benefit.
By leaving his sentence unfinished, he probably finished it and the whole section better when he picked it up later on.
Hemingway isn’t the only one to use this technique. Psychology has discovered evidence that if you stop in the middle of a task, a lesson or a creative project, later, you will have better recall and a deeper understanding of whatever you were trying to do or learn.
The Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik is credited with this discovery. Hence, the Zeigarnik effect.
Stop in The Middle
Imagine you are studying a new language and must learn a vocabulary list. The typical approach is to work through the whole list before you go onto to something else. But, if the Zeigarnik Effect is true, you might do better to stop in the middle and do something else.
I’ve been trying to use this technique in my writing. Instead of aiming to complete an entire draft or even a paragraph, I stop halfway through a sentence. At first it felt unnatural and wrong. But surprisingly, it seems to work. One thing I really appreciate is that it combats my tendency toward “pre-crastination”.
Yes, you read right. Pre-crastination. Procrastinators tend to delay work. And by interrupting their work midway, they can improve the likelihood of getting back to it.
But if you’re a pre-crastinator this is turned inside-out. Delaying work makes pre-crastinators so anxious that they rush to get it done. It’s super-satisfying to have the work done and behind us.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside. Pre-crastinators undermine their own work.
By rushing to get something done –especially something creative – we miss all of the mulling over it that might otherwise happen. That mulling –or percolation – improves our thinking, and so, our work.
You may have noticed that you get your best ideas while you’re in the shower or gardening. That’s not unusual. It’s called “diffuse thinking”. Your brain sends the thing you’re working on into a kind of limbo. It’s there, but not in the foreground. Your focus is somewhere else, but your brain is at work in the background –again, mulling.
The Zeigarnik Effect makes that process explicit. When you walk away from something in the middle you give your brain time to ponder, and you also let the new information sink in and “stick”. So, it might be a good idea to embrace the Zeigarnik effect and work in short bursts, walking away periodically. Of course, if you’re a procrastinator, the same practice will work. It just calls upon the Ovsiankina Effect instead.
Two theories, one set of behaviors!
While I’m not suggesting that you multi-task, per se, there is a connection between these two concepts.
If you try applying these theories to your own work, there’s an immediate possible challenge. When and where do you “stop in the middle”? It’s not obvious.
Building Blocks of Time
Some folks use a pre-determined cadence. For example, you might be utilizing a framework like the Pomodoro method—working for 25 minutes before taking 5 minute breaks. Its purpose is a little bit different –to preserve your ability to focus and concentrate. But nonetheless, it’s a perfect opportunity to apply the Zeigarnik approach.
Since you’re already breaking up your work, when a 5-minute break is coming, don’t wrap up your thought or complete that last paragraph. Instead, just stop –ideally midway through something. Then, take a break. But, instead of coming back to the same thing, go on to something else.
It will feel weird, and maybe a bit transgressive to leave a thought incomplete But, you may be surprised by your own brilliance! The trick is to do this deliberately rather than just letting your attention be hijacked by whatever other thing intrudes. Plus, you can be sure of getting back to it.
If you are not using a structured system like the Pomodoro method, you could just remind yourself to notice when you’re on a roll –just stop 3 words before the end. It might feel like a missed opportunity. Or you may be afraid to lose the whole idea. But it’s that very tension that sets your unconscious brain into action.
Trust yourself. Your brain is smarter than you think.
Escape to Elsewhere
Do something else. Go for a walk, knead some bread dough, or put on some tunes and dance! Use your brain in some other way. Then revisit it later or the next day. Your brain will enjoy the shift in focus. The work you were doing fades away from your conscious thoughts. But, all the while, a part of you is chipping away at it, and carving a masterpiece.
Given all of this we can embrace some of the interruptions that feel so ubiquitous in our lives. Take the opportunity to just stop. Wherever you are. Use that interruption. It could pay dividends in creativity, memory and understanding.
Be secure in the knowledge that your own train of thought will be waiting for you to complete –even better.