The Zeigarnik Effect

It’s hard for me to eat right. To find the time to workout. To keep up on literature. To get all the features done for Draft.


When I was young, my parents remodeled the downstairs of our house. My sister and I got this awesome new homework area and our own desks. But I remember being a brat when my father said it was ready for us. My desk didn’t have a desk pad calendar:

Which I wanted for a soft writing surface.

A naive, impatient kid. But what’s interesting is how this childlike attitude manifests itself in adults in a much more destructive way.

We hate things that aren’t finished.

Like the times we go out for dinner and lament we ate too much. We regret finishing the entire plate of food. Now we feel terrible and don’t want to see the movie we were planning afterwards.

Or we can’t find the time to workout. We’ve tried DVDs at home, like the popular P90X, but the workouts are too long. So we don’t do them.

Or we don’t read enough interesting books. Instead we keep trying to finish the last book we bought, even though it’s boring us to tears.

Or we have these grandiose business ideas. But we can’t find the time on nights and weekends to make them a reality. When someone mentions how to launch with a baby step, we avoid starting altogether. An unfinished vision feels worse than an idea that’s not even started.

There’s a name for this.

The tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete

The Zeigarnik Effect

As an adult I now know how great things get when I realize I don’t need to finish something. When doing half is perfect.

When I wanted to lose weight before my wedding over 10 years ago, I decided to eat half of every meal. If I had two tacos, I’d just eat one. I didn’t leave starving. If I was hungry a couple hours later, I’d eat the other taco. I lost a lot of weight. Too much. I looked far too skinny in my wedding photos. But just eating half did the trick.

Working my butt off to get a new company to profitability, I don’t find a ton of time for extracurriculars. But I still work out a lot. I love the P90X workouts. Often I don’t bother doing the whole thing. I’ll do half and get a great balanced workout in 30 minutes instead of 60. There’s even a line in the documentation about things you can do when you finish P90X.

Do the first round of the resistance work outs to maintain your muscles mass. 80% of the benefit in a resistance work out is had during the first set.

Tony Horton, creator of P90X

And I throw out a lot of books. Virtually. I read a book, and if I don’t like it, it’s done. It’s so easy to get a new book on a Kindle, it’s silly to spend time on something that stopped being interesting. I get through a whole lot more books now, because I don’t slowly fight through boring reads. And all this extra reading in my life has helped me become more creative as an entrepreneur, as a writer, as a person.

I do a lot of half features for Draft. I’ve got grand ideas of what Draft will become. But I don’t have time to get the whole product there immediately. Someone wrote in when I first launched that people needed a way to communicate with the collaborator of their document. Some kind of comments feature. That was a lot of work I wasn’t ready to complete yet. So I did much less than half of that feature. When your collaborator was done editing, you got an email from their email address. Now you could just jump on email to chat about your document.

Far less than half of what I eventually had in mind for a feature, but it satisfied a good deal of the pain when the comments feature didn’t exist.

And on and on, I try to find half solutions. Do half the work. Half the effort.

It doesn’t always feel good. I’m impatient still like everyone else. I want things complete and perfect. Today.

But as I figure out how to make entrepreneurship my life long career, I’m constantly reminded how important it is to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. How happy I am with half. How the desk is ready even when it’s not “perfect”.


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