The Zeigarnik Finish Line: Tricking Yourself Into Finishing Stuff

If you want me to abandon something I’m writing, this conversation is almost guaranteed to do the trick:

You: Writing anything interesting lately?

Me: Oh, I’ve got a few things I’ve been tinkering with.

You: Okay, could you tell me about one of them? What’s it about?

Me: Um, well, it’s sort of like [launches into an awkward three minute x-meets-y pitch, followed by describing a few characters, the arc of the plot, and how I think it’s going].

You: Well, I hope it goes well for you!

**Narrator voice: It will not go well for me.**

I can’t pitch my unwritten ideas to you in any meaningful detail (by which I mean “I can’t say anything beyond ‘it’s a dark fantasy novel’ or ‘it’s a near-future sf thing’”) without my brain cache dumping the intent to write, formatting all associated files, and moving along as if the deed were already done. Something about talking through doing a thing triggers the “mission accomplished” wiring of my brain, a psychological trick I’m apparently not alone in playing on myself

This is especially frustrating in a field defined by creative collaboration, shared enthusiasm, and general entrepreneurship like writing. It’s also bitterly ironic for me, as a teacher of writing. “Talk through your ideas with your critique partners and workshop peers!” I encourage my students, all too aware of how that advice frequently backfires on me.

I’ve wondered if I’m a writing hypocrite, preaching the gospel of transparency, all the while knowing that it only works for me if the whole project is open and collaborative, top to bottom, with others fueling a constant awareness of what actually is done and what needs to be done. Otherwise, talking about things I will do turns into things I’ve done. Then I have to engage entirely new protocols of self-deception to get back behind the keyboard. Is it fair of me to ask others to do what I know I can’t? Does it present a false version of what it means to work on your writing, and of how I work on my writing, if I can’t follow my own advice?

Actual image of my brain when I talk about my works in progress too much

I’ve tried to untangle this web of irony by picking at technicalities. For instance, I can take a draft, show it to others to read, get their feedback, and then continue working. That’s never so much the problem. The snare that always catches me is sharing the idea when it’s in its aetherial state, more intention than execution, without a “something” to show for it yet. So, maybe it isn’t unfair of me to ask students to share their works-in-progress with each other, since I can do at least that much.

Maybe. 

Most of the time. 

After a bit of research, I found the name of the real thing I’m struggling with, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as the Zeigarnik Effect. You can read about the Zeigarnik Effect as it applies to daily life yourself in more detail using the previous link, or read into its history here. In essence, experimentation with interrupting people as they complete a task suggests that the human brain is wired to prioritize and focus on unfinished work. You’re less likely to remember the tasks you complete than the task you didn’t quite complete, because that incompleteness nags at you. On the other hand, the more something feels complete, the less priority it takes up in our mental queue because — quite reasonably — it no longer feels urgent. 

You see where I’m going here. 

If talking through a project before it is complete trips my “project complete!” switch, then actually doing that project, taking its work seriously: all of that falls to the back of my mental queue. My brain will already have decided it’s not a priority anymore. So the solution is actually simple.

To be a better writer, I need to finish fewer things, and keep more secrets.

Let me explain.

On its face, a resolution to “finish fewer things” seems no different than the mental cache dump I experience now. But it is. The life-hack some people have adopted through a better understanding of the Zeigarnik Effect is to get work started, and to do it in more stages, specifically because that ongoing incompleteness will force the work to the front of their minds. 

A colleague of mine who has also helped coach some of our students through the YWP NaNoWriMo experience likes to advise people to stop writing when they still know what the rest of the scene should contain. Finish your writing session with the moment itself unfinished and you’ll have something to jump back into, he says. I used to preach the opposite approach, urging them to break things up into units they could complete, a kind of checklist. Now it seems my brain has gotten wise to that trick. Tidying up a scene and then tucking the laptop away doesn’t help me jump back into the text the way it used to. Often, it leaves me blank on what to do next when I sit down to write, even if I have an outline to draw off of because (surprise, surprise) the outline also flips my “it is finished!” switch. 

The Zeigarnik Effect, though, means that if I leave a scene trailing, or a plan only half-written, or whatever else, the sheer, nagging awareness of that unfinished state will keep the work I have yet to do fresh in mind. I’ll mull over how many words I might need to finish the arc up, or what comes next, or consider if the moment needs another beat. Whatever the mulling leads me to, it’s the product of that unfinished state, and it feeds my desire to return. If I don’t have closure — not even the rounded-up feeling of closure my brain gets from describing where I’m going and how I’ll do it — then I have a problem. I have unfinished business, and with it, a desire to actually make things complete.

This is why I need to get out of the habit of answering questions like “what are you writing now?” with anything beyond a smile and vague tease. I need to keep my secrets if I’m going to keep my writing process safe. It runs counter to so much advice I’ve used in the past — used, and even used to thrive in. Accountability buddies. Telling people about stories so they’d follow up with me later. Telling people things because that would make them “real.”

Well, the joke’s on me. I’m apparently so powerful, I speak my own ideas out of existence. 

So the next time we meet, do us both a favor: don’t ask me what I’m writing. I’m going to have to lie to you, anyway. In fact, you try some gentle deflection, too, the next time someone wants to know about what you haven’t finished. It might just make the difference between whether you reach “The End” or not.

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