When once asked how he stayed motivated to write, the famed US novelist Ernest Hemmingway said, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel, you will never be stuck.”
In 2017 education researcher, Yoshinori Oyama, from Chimba University, Japan, told a friend in a café he was more motivated to return to a task if the task was going well when he left it. His friend told him Hemingway used to do that. And that got Dr Oyama thinking about whether stopping when things are going well might be a useful way to motivate people working on long projects. Dr Oyama teamed up Emmanuel Manalo from Kyoto University, to research the best way to stay motivated while working.
Dr Oyama and Dr Manalo decided to investigate whether Hemingway's advice was just useful to writers or other professions.
For a first experiment Dr Oyama asked 260 undergraduate students to do a dull task – copy out text from newspapers by hand into a writing grid. They were asked about how motivated they felt.
When the first few students had finished, Dr Oyama asked the rest to stop. Then the students were asked to count how many characters they had left to copy and asked about how they felt about finishing the task. The students who had less text left to copy were significantly more motivated to keep going than those who had more left and those who had actually finished their job.
Dr Manalo believes being able to envision accomplishment motivates us. “We need to have belief in ourselves – some kind of expectation that we can do something,” he told the BBC. “And when we're closer to finishing something that we had previously failed to achieve, then that optimism increases.”
We are more motivated if we can see the big picture
Another factor is based on a school of thought called “gestaltism” named by Austrian and German psychologists in the early 20th Century. They believed that people look for patterns or the big picture, so the whole picture is more important to us than its individual parts. “When we have parts of something, we always want to create a whole,” said Dr Manalo. For example, if you show someone the outline of a triangle made up of broken-up dashes, our brains will automatically fill them in and assume it's a triangle not a picture of broken lines.
Dr Oyama and Dr Manalo's research found that students were significantly more motivated to finish a task if they were closer to the end. “That's the same thing that's in action here, that we tend to want to complete something, especially if it's close to making sense or close to achieving some sort of goal,” Dr Manalo said.
In the next experiment Dr Oyama and Dr Manalo divided a class of 131 students into two groups, and asked them to write about their life up to 18 years. In Group A, they were given help structuring their answers; they were told to split their memories into two parts, kindergarten to primary school, and high school to university. The others were given no help. Before they started, the students were asked how motivated they felt.
When most of the students were close to finishing, the researchers told them to stop. The researchers asked them how close they were to finishing and how motivated they were. The students who has almost finished were the most motivated. But Group A, who had more direction and had divided the task in two, were the most motivated. Maybe they had a better idea of how much they had left to do and how long it was going to take.
We hate ‘incompletion'
In 2014 Dr Daniella Kupor from Boston University looked at the effect of being interrupted. Dr Kupor and her team showed people a video of a comedian telling a joke. Half the participants watched the whole joke and half were left hanging. Then the participants had to do some online shopping. The people who only heard half the joke were much more likely to buy quickly.
“When an interruption prevents individuals from achieving a particular goal or task, we find that they make faster and less thoughtful decisions in completely unrelated areas,” Dr Kupor said. “They feel a lack of closure, and the resulting unsatisfied need for closure can spill over onto unrelated decisions – and motivate people to obtain it with those unrelated decisions.”
The study shows that interruptions can provide a motivational boost, but it may not always be 100 per cent good, as it can cause us to rush and be careless with decisions.
Stop when the going is good
For the Hemingway effect to work you need to step away from your work when you know what you're doing. If you are working on a project with lots of problems and no clear sense of direction, you will struggle to find the motivation to keep working on it.
Dr Oyama already uses the Hemingway strategy when he's working on scientific papers, and the researchers have a current study to see if it could help students finish their doctorates.
The main point of this research is to stop when you see a way forward and you believe you are able to complete the project. It is not a good idea to stop when you are struggling or lost or failing to grasp what someone is trying to teach you. In these circumstances you need to push on. But stopping when all is going well, and you are itching to finish a task is a great way to motivate yourself… the ultimate takeout message is stop when you're doing well, not bad!
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