The merits in the unfinished

Category: Lifestyle

Last month I skimmed over Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suation. Some sections I read in detail, others quiet negligently. Overall, the book flowed too much like a classic bestseller. Too many references to psychology experiments. Too many stories I found a tad bit superficial. Too safe and too simple of a language. A glamorous profile photograph. Precisely the ingredients one needs to successfully spread such material. It goes to say, the writing style bored me. Profoundly. No hard feelings, Robert.

And maybe I’m a hypocrite. Maybe I too employ elements of superficial writing unbeknownst to me. I certainly can’t forecast the form of mutation my writing may undergo were I to attempt a bestseller publication. Maybe the output would induce a case of manic depression. Followed by starvation, dangerously high caffeine levels, and repeat viewings of Nicolas Winding Refn films.

Notwithstanding. Presentation misdeeds aside, some Pre-Suation content I found of merit. Looking over my notes, I captured six bullet points. Most of them merely reaffirmed various tips or strategies I’d already been exposed to. But reaffirmation brings no harm, if presented with some keen insight. One inspired particular notice - the benefits of leaving stuff unfinished.

The unfinished effect, bearing certain relation to the Zeigarnik effect, named after a Russian psychologist, states roughly the following. In leaving engaging tasks unfinished, we create continued momentum. We eagerly continue with the task the next day. We don’t face the hurdle of starting from zero. We keep the mind invested, the head space still occupied. We also stimulate an air of mystery in the unresolved.

I’m drawn to a mysterious affair indeed. And I’m no opponent to leaving tasks unfinished, although not always to the intended effect, and not always with intent to resume. I have unfinished two masters degrees (and a handful of online courses), three language (learning) missions, a plethora of reading hundreds of pages in, short story writings, podcast recordings, tool prototypes, Fellini’s Amarcord, Capoeira training, friendships, maturity.

I quiet expected the above list to be longer. Hmmm. Suspicious.

I’d also finished things that I earnestly wish I hadn’t: a Bachelor’s degree, plates of fatally high glycemic levels, strange-tasting local brews, familiar discussions, years of full-time salaried employment, and a single episode of any televised prime-time programming.

Some pursuit is of most utility in precisely unfinished state. The effects are not linear with progress.

Cialdini learned to terminate college lectures with an unresolved mystery to draw more attention; to create the appetite for more. Multi-part films and televised series employ this tactic to great extent. Finalize the episode with a cliff-hanger. Leave the viewers restless and desiring.

Multi-part literature has been known to follow a similar strategy. Much of the 19th-century classic literature I enjoy today was originally published serially in magazine format. I can only imagine the sort of psychosis it would cause me to spend months anticipating the fate of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.

However, let’s resume a more applicable form of the principle in hand. When does it make sense to unfinish your work? A strong case can be made for writing. Leave your engaging article in limbo. Be that much more eager to resume the day after. Or so one would hope, provided it’s indeed engaging. I’ve tried and tested this strategy both with writing and programming. It works. It stimulates flow. One just needs the discipline to do away with the desire for closure.

Questions, comments? Connect.