The Productive Part-time Author: Finish Things before Moving On

Aug 6, 2019 | Better Writing

Have you ever tossed and turned all night thinking about a task you left unfinished on your desk? You’ve been a victim of the Zeigarnik Effect.

It’s named for Bluma Zeigarnik. who was a Russian psychologist in the early 20th century. She discovered that uncompleted or interrupted tasks are easier to remember than things we’ve completed.

Why the Zeigarnik Effect Matters

If you’re a part-time author, you’ve already got plenty of stress. You’ve got work to do at your day job and relationships to maintain. You can cut some of your stress just by knowing about the Zeigarnik Effect.

When you’re finished with a task, bring it to a stopping point; otherwise, it’s likely to stick in your memory. You’ll find yourself thinking about it at family events or when you’re trying to sleep.

How to Finish Things

Shut-down rituals are the easiest way I know to finish things completely. You do the same things in the same order every time. Put a cue at the end of the ritual to indicate that you’re done. Here are two examples of what I do.

When I end a writing session, the first thing I do is make a note about what I’m going to write when I start the next session. I call that, “Finishing Like Hemingway.” Next, I review all my materials and the project I’m working on. I decide if I need to do anything before the next writing session. That might include buying supplies or doing research. Then, the papers go in the folder for the project and the folder goes into a file drawer and out of sight. I stand up, say, “There, that’s done” and take a break. Now for the commentary.

Your ritual is likely to be different. Mine developed over years and works for me. I don’t finish a session until I know what I’m going to do in the next session. That way, I can start right in when the next session begins. I make notes about anything I should do between sessions. Then, things go in a folder and I put the folder out of sight. Out of sight is important for me. If the file folder is visible, I will think about what’s in it. Finally, I have the cue to my brain that we’re done. I take a break.

Here’s another example. It’s my end-of-day shut-down routine.

I use a checklist to make sure these things are done every time. I make sure I’ve scheduled blog posts for the next day. I make sure that I’ve sent work projects or reminders to my clients. I use a small digital recorder to capture ideas and reminders as I go through the day. My next task is to transfer the items from my idea-catcher to the proper place or file, or to delete them altogether. Next, I update my work board. Finally, I plan my first work for the next morning and put the work materials next to my computer. Then, I turn the computer off. I stand up and say, “That’s it for another productive day!”

If it’s a normal workday, the next thing that I do is my evening devotions. They are important in their own right and as the transition from work to home.

Bottom Line

The Zeigarnik Effect is a fancy name for something that can cause you stress and make you inefficient. Beat it by finishing things before you move on. Use simple shut-down rituals when you end your day, your writing session, or any other task.

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