The value of a sudden stop
In the 1920s, Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed a waiter taking orders at a restaurant. When prompted, the waiter could easily recall items from unpaid orders but couldn’t recite a single item after the patrons had paid their bill. Zeigarnik published her seminal work, hereafter referred to by her namesake. The Zeigarnik Effect states that an incomplete task creates a cognitive tension that makes task-specific memory more accessible. Once completed, the tension releases, and the memory disappears in the sands of time. Although further research has failed to corroborate this phenomenon, the Zeigarnik Effect still influences many aspects of modern society—such as onboarding users to software products by stating things like “Your profile is 60% complete” or showing a checklist of half-completed items.
People have a natural desire for completion, so incomplete tasks continue to nag us. While useful in some contexts, this tendency could foster anxiety—ruminating on open loops, distracting our minds with unfinished tasks we fear to forget.
The remedy: If you find yourself worrying about something, write it down in a trusted system. For instance, I use Apple Notes to offload any task or concern that worms its way into my head. Then I have scheduled time to empty this repository—which frees my mind for other things.
King Shahryar’s wife cheated on him, so he beheaded her in rage. Her beheading wasn’t enough to assuage his anger, so he picked up a gruesome habit of marrying a new woman each morning and beheading her each night. He did this to many wives for many nights until one woman—Scheherazade—told him a story. But Scheherazade didn’t complete the story. Instead, she stopped at a point of high tension, promising to continue the story the next night if King Shahryar acquiesced. Shahryar agreed, and the woman lived another day. Scheherazade continued her story, again ending on a cliffhanger. She did for One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, weaving fascinating tales likes Aladdin and Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves, and by the final night—the king had fallen in love with her, and she was never beheaded.
How’s that for a happy ending?
Cliffhangers are a plot device affiliated with low-brow pulp fiction or TV series—To Be Continued…Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel. While hopefully none of us find ourselves under the terror of a heartbroken king, we can use the concept to our advantage. A few ideas:
Start small. If you have a big presentation or an important report looming and you don’t have time or energy to finish it, start immediately. Open a document, add a title, create an outline. In seconds, you’ll have created momentum, so getting going later will be easier.
Stop halfway. When working on a long project, abruptly cut yourself off in the middle of your work. Stop writing mid-sentence. When you return for the next session, you won’t wonder where to begin—you’ll start where you left off.
Chronos & Kairos
The Ancient Greeks had two concepts for time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is quantitative, purpose-driven, and marked by hours and minutes, and Kairos is qualitative, having no measure or agenda. No surprise, but Chronos was portrayed as stodgy and evil, whereas Kairos was romantic, pure, and beautiful.
Reducing Chronos and Kairos to simplistic terms like evil and good isn’t helpful. There’s no light without shadow.
Long workdays (or weeks or months) leave us feeling drained and miserable—we’re hyperaware of Chronos’s downsides in the age of Zoom Fatigue. But a surplus of Kairos doesn’t feel good either. Two nights in Vegas is fine, but three nights can leave us overstimulated and driftless (or so I hear, I’ll soon be in Vegas for a three-day/three-night conference to see for myself).
How could we strike a balance between Chronos and Kairos in the modern world? Is it as simple as observing the sanctity of existing schedules?
Daily. Whether hourly or salary, most work comes prepackaged with “working hours.” Could Chronos end at 5 PM each day?
Weekly. Could we leave our weekends unscheduled?
Annual. Could vacations and holidays, if left open, yield ripe Kairos opportunities?
Like natural sleep, Kairos cannot be planned or forced—it just occurs. But, like allowing yourself sufficient time in bed each night, you increase the chance of it happening. You might drift off…
…until the screaming alarm of Chronos yanks you back.
A few things I found interesting:
These recently coined words
These visually stunning math concepts
A “cliffhanger” joke: There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who can infer.
This is very informative once again. Thank you for sharing! 👍