The Power of Leaving Things Undone

Every summer, me and my brother, Kyle, look forward to spending time at our family cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin.

Over the years we’ve spent many weekends on the lake, in the woods, and at the local establishment. It’s come as a rite of summer.

Over the past few years our lives have become busy. We’ve both been inundated with work and family obligations. Kyle has recently welcomed a daughter into his life and I’ve been busy exploring the country with my girlfriend.

Every year without fail, we’ve at least made one trip to the cabin.

With the summer’s relatively short in Wisconsin’s north woods, (It’s not unusual to have a May frost or an early October freeze.) we look for every opportunity to get up to this sacred space. One way that we’ve found to make sure that we find the time, is to leave things undone.cabin

With a summer cabin things require attention. The cabin requires winterizing and maintenance on it’s final visit. The pump has to be drained. The fridge contents have to be removed of all liquids for fear of explosion from expansion on cold winter days. Other lose ends have to be tied up before the cabin enters it’s winter’s slumber.

Instead of spoiling our fun and dreading winter during our summer trips, we unintentionally relied a Gestalt psychology trick first documented by a Soviet psychologist in the 1920s.

Bluma Zeigarnik began studying the eponymous psychological effect after her professor, Kurt Lewan, reported an observation. Lewan asserted that a waiter had a more vivid recollection of the contents unpaid orders. After the patrons paid, the waiter soon forgot the details of the orders.

The Zeigarnik Effect asserts that there is a “tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete.”1  It’s believed that an automatic system is in place that signals our conscious minds, which may be focused on new goals, that a previous task was left incomplete. It’s believed that it’s simply human nature to finish the things we start. If left incomplete, we feel a sense of dissonance. I know I’ve experienced these feeling for things left undone.

Observing our natural tendencies we can use these to accomplish more.

I have a natural tendency to look for stopping points in my work. The same piece of mind that lends itself nicely to the tidy completion of tasks pushes me to do this. A more effective strategy may be to leave things undone. To stop in the middle of a sentence when I’m penning a new piece I can’t complete in one sitting or to leave the motorcycle assembled.

The downside of course is a distracted mind, a cluttered garage, and sense of failure. But, if done intentionally it may result in more work completed and more motivation to return to a project and close the loop.


1 (Baumeister, R.F., & Bushman, B.J., (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature. United States: Thompson Wadsworth. ).

Further reading:

Zeigarnik Effect

Author: Jeff

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