On Doing What Works

The Zeigarnik effect!

This past weekend, I stumbled upon scientific support for the method that helped me to draft The Creative Compass. In an earlier post (on drafting), I wrote:

At first, I aimed to complete one chapter per day, but I quickly fell back on an older strategy: In two to six hours of daily writing, I aimed to produce only the first 300 words of that day’s chapter, knowing that it would be easier to pick up from where I’d left off as I completed each draft the following day, producing about 1,000 words total [end of one chapter, beginning of the next] for the day.

This strategy worked for me, and it turns out to have a psychological basis in the Zeigarnik effect, which I read about on The Bulletproof Musician (via Harmonious Bodies).

Ph.D. performance psychologist Noa Kageyama describes how study participants who successfully completed a difficult puzzle in the given time “were far less likely to resume working on [any of] the puzzles in their free time than those who did not complete the puzzle.”

The bottom line:

[W]hen interrupted in the middle of a task, not only were participants more motivated to resume working on that task, but they also continued working on it for much longer.

Kagayama draws upon these studies to make some great suggestions for getting started — and his thoughts prompted a personal revelation.

Sometimes it’s easy to miss obvious connections — only now do I realize that it might help me to consciously draw on the Zeigarnik effect in each of my projects, whether practicing singing or guitar or even my daily workout. I’ve always thought I craved a sense of completion in each day’s work, but maybe I actually need the sense of a task undone to bring me back to it the following day (or sooner). More on this once I’ve tried it. (Or perhaps you already have? Let me know by email or twitter.)

In this case, I know this strategy works because it has already worked for me: it helped me to produce a published book. As I continue to document my own adventures in screenwriting, however, I’m going to be writing about untested strategies — and when I say untested I don’t mean that I won’t try them out myself and report back, but that it may be a while before I see the success that generally confers a halo upon any work that led up to it.

So, in the meantime, why should you try out any of these strategies? It’s a fair question.

My answer: You should do so only if the strategy intrigues you, and you should keep doing so only if it actually works for you. By ‘works’ I mean: Does it produce results? Does it make you want to keep going? Does it lead to new discoveries? Does it synthesize with other tested knowledge? If it doesn’t work for you, then that’s really all that matters — not whether it worked for Mozart or Michael Jordan or Meryl Streep. Or me.

Psst! It’s going to take me one more week to return to the question I raised here. Thanks for your patience.