The Lure of the Incomplete Task

How creative endeavors pull us in

Posted Jan 07, 2013

A waiter remembers every detail of an order but promptly forgets them when the plates hit the table. Evidently, the human brain strives to complete ongoing activities and focuses on details of the incomplete task. The lure of the incomplete task transcends memory to motivate a lifetime of creative achievement.

The Zeigarnik effect

German psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik was inspired by the memory feats of her waiter and conducted laboratory experiments to demonstrate that people remember best those puzzles that they are prevented from completing.

Operating under the gestalt theories of her day, Zeigarnik imagined that starting a problem opens up a “tension field” that gets resolved when the problem is solved. Her experiments supported this idea in the sense that the incomplete tasks were remembered better as though the brain had kept them filed as active, or unresolved.

A motivational Zeigarnik effect

To modern academics, the Zeigarnik effect relates primarily to the way in which memory works but the gestalt psychologists were much more interested in the motivational aspects of the phenomenon.

It was not just a matter of wanting to resolve incomplete problems. There was also the issue of what sort of problems people wanted to solve, or their “aspiration level.” This simple concept is at the heart of much subsequent research on achievement motivation.

One of the key conclusions is that ambitious people do not have particularly high aspirations. Instead, they aim for the top of the tree rather than for the sky. In other words, they set realistic goals that they have a decent chance of attaining. (It is not hard to imagine how that strategy would have served our forager ancestors who probably did not work as hard as we do but nevertheless persisted in pursuing game they had a reasonable chance of taking).

By contrast to ambitious people those with low aspiration either set ridiculously easy goals – or impossibly difficult ones, or both. They aspire to living in their own trailer but keep buying lottery tickets in the hope of becoming fabulously wealthy.

The lure of the incomplete task for creative people

The defining characteristic of high achievement in every endeavor is not setting high goals but goals that are high enough to be worthwhile achieving but low enough to be accomplishable.

Anyone who sets out to write the great American novel is likely to spend a lot of time dithering. Whatever words appear on their screen are bound to seem unworthy of their great objective. High achievers take a more pragmatic approach. They work with what they have and endeavor to beat it into better shape as they go along.

Having begun a novel, or a picture, or a piece of music, most creative people find the energy to bring it completion. The lure of the incomplete task sucks them in. The creative urge takes hold of them and won’t let go until they finish.

The incomplete task may motivate an artist to complete some project but there is a more pervasive sense in which this aspirational process plays out in a person’s life, whether they are artistic or not.

If a person sees their entire career as a work in progress, they are constantly trying to improve. Whether it is a runner improving her times, a business owner improving sales, a bricklayer working faster, or a hospital administrator saving lives, these goals stimulate a great deal of effort. Considered in those terms, the incomplete task is a motivator to be reckoned with.