The Motivational Benefit of Finding a “Bad Stopping Place”

Knowing where to stop keeps you motivated and moving forward.

Posted Apr 02, 2018

motivation-3233650_1920 Pixabay geralt
Source: motivation-3233650_1920 Pixabay geralt

When it comes to starting a new task, we often toil over how to get started. Procrastination, writer’s block, and daily distractions are all factors that get in the way. Rarely do we toil over where to stop a task, but maybe we should. Because research suggests that stopping a task in “the right spot” can actually increase your likelihood of getting going again the next day.

To learn what “the right spot” is, we need to first explore something called the Zeigarnik effect. Think back to a time when you had unfinished business. Maybe you were in a heated argument with your spouse when you had to cut it off to go pick up the kids. Or maybe you were elbowed deep in reading a good novel and were suddenly interrupted by a phone call. When we are disrupted in this way, we often find it hard to switch gears and focus on the task at hand. Instead, our mind constantly drifts back to our unfinished business. We rehearse our spousal argument over and over in our heads as we drive the kids back home. We struggle to listen to the phone call because our mind is still stuck in the pages of that juicy book.

These examples demonstrate an undeniable truth: the human mind hates loose ends.

This tendency for our minds to loathe unfinished business occurs because of the Zeigarnik effect. It is named after the pioneering female psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, who discovered the effect in 1927. While dining at a restaurant, she noticed that the waiters seemed able to remember complex orders as long as the order was incomplete. But as soon as the order was finished, it was seemingly wiped clean from their memory. Intrigued, Bluma Zeigarnik conducted a study in the lab to replicate this effect and found a similar result: When people were working on puzzles and were interrupted, their memory for the puzzles was better than people who were allowed to complete the task.

As I wrote in my book Motivation Science, the Zeigarnik effect refers to “the tendency for people to be more likely to remember actions that have been interrupted than actions that have been completed.” To put it another way, people have a better memory for unfinished business than finished business. When we finish something, our mind essentially closes the door on it and moves on. As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it, “I could never remember anything once I had written it down; as each day you wiped your memory clear with writing as you might wipe a blackboard clear with a sponge or a wet rag.” This makes sense. Space in our mind is a prime real estate, so if we’ve finished something and no longer feel we need to think about it, we clear the board and make room for new ideas.

But what happens when we walk away from something unfinished? Try as we might, we can’t completely shut the door. Thoughts about the unfinished task leak through that open doorway and we struggle to rid our mind of them. As such, the Zeigarnik effect can be quite annoying at times. You find yourself sitting there in bed, struggling to go to sleep as your mind races through tomorrow’s to-do list. But if used correctly, the Zeigarnik effect can also be incredibly motivating because it creates a need to go back and complete our unfinished business. Only by finishing the task can we finally rid ourselves of those annoyingly intrusive thoughts.

Supercharge Your Motivation with the Zeigarnik Effect

So, now that you know what the Zeigarnik effect is, how can you best use it? The answer lies in where you chose to stop working each day. Let’s be honest now. When you pursue an important goal, one of the hardest parts is keeping your momentum going day after day, month after month (sometimes year after year). Maybe you are trying to earn a college degree. Maybe you are learning a new hobby, a foreign language, or to play a musical instrument. Or maybe like me, you enjoy writing novels. To tackle such a monolithic task, we often chop it up into more chewable parts. For example, if you are writing a novel, you would break your book into chapters, paragraphs, and sentences. For most of us, when we are working on a project and nearing the end of our workday, we look for a “good stopping place.” This often means getting to the end of a task—for example, if we are writing we may finish off a chapter—before walking away. But the Zeigarnik effect suggests that if we want to keep our momentum going, we should be looking for a “bad stopping place.” A place where we're in the middle of a task. A place where things are just about to start flowing.

As counterintuitive as that may seem, lots of successful people have used the “bad stopping place” technique in their own work. For example, the writer Ernest Hemingway once said, “When you are going good, stop writing.” In fact, Hemingway was such a devout practitioner of the Zeigarnik effect, he would often stop each day’s writing session in mid-sentence! Of course, when Hemingway stopped writing for the day, he usually started drinking, but the fact that he could still wake up the next day and continue writing through his hangover tells us just how powerful the Zeignarnik effect can be.

Similarly, author Ronald Dahl stated this during an interview printed at the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

“One of the vital things for a writer who’s writing a book, which is a lengthy project and is going to take about a year, is how to keep the momentum going … I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through… If you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said, then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that.”

By forcing themselves to stop in the middle of the flow, these authors were purposely igniting the Zeigarnik effect. Their advice seems to fly in the face of common sense wisdom, but clearly, it worked for them and can also work for you.

So the next time you are pursuing a goal, consider heeding their advice. Don’t stop when you are stuck or when you have completed the task. Wait until things are flowing and then walk away. Often the easiest way to do this is when you reach the end of a task (e.g., finish writing a chapter, crossed something off your to-do list), get started on the next task for a minute or two and then stop. If you do this, there is a good chance your unconscious brain will be chewing on the next task all night (maybe even in your dreams) and you’ll be itching to get going the next day!

For more tips on how you can use psychological science to improve your writing, check out The Writer’s Laboratory at www.melissaburkley.com