The Hemingway Effect And How To Use Your Motivation Levels To Get Things Done
Who was Hemingway, and what was the Hemingway effect?
Ernest Hemingway was an American novelist, most notably known for his works such as A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea.
The “Hemingway effect” was coined in a research article by Yoshinori Oyama, Emmanuel Manalo, and Yoshihide Nakatani. This effect refers to the belief that failing to complete a task can have beneficial effects on an individual’s motivation to complete the task. The name for this phenomenon originated from Hemingway’s advice when he was asked about the frequency a writer should write daily. Hemingway advised, “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” (Hemingway, 1935, p. 174A; Hemingway, cited in Phillips, 1999, pp. 41–42).
This may sound slightly strange because failing and finishing well sounds like an oxymoron. However, based on Yoshinori’s study, the discovery was that under certain conditions, failure to finish a task can have beneficial effects on motivation to persist and continue the task.
Hence, these are some of the ways you can utilize your motivation levels to get things done:
1. The fulfilment of taking on and solving a challenge.
For this effect to work, Yoshinori clarified that the person doing the task should be reasonably close to completing the task, so much so that they can perceive that it is within their grasp to complete it. Simultaneously, it helps that the task seems “reasonably challenging.”
Do you know the satisfaction someone expresses when they can remove a tight lid on a jar? The ability to yank that lid off the jar creates some form of satisfaction as the task was perceived as difficult, and maybe, many may have tried and failed. Applying this example, the fulfilment of completing a challenge can motivate an individual to get things done.
2. A sense of duty/commitment to a task.
While the Hemingway effect utilizes failing as a motivating factor, the “Zeigarnik effect” utilizes interruption as motivation instead. This effect was introduced following several experiments that Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik and Russian-German-American Maria Ovsiankina (Farina, 1996; Ovsiankina, 1928; Zeigarnik, 1927) conducted.
Zeigarnik discovered that participants remembered the unfinished tasks better. Meanwhile, Ovsiankina found that participants tended to resume tasks they had not yet completed. Contrary to the previous point on fulfilment, their experiments showed that completion itself was the goal – regardless of whether there was a benefit to completing the task at hand.
In short, the similarity between these two effects is the individual’s commitment to the task: “I’ve already committed to [doing this task], I’ll get it if I try again / I’ll finish it because I started.” Some may call this stubborn, some may call it perseverance. This reminded me of the time I used up all three chances to pass one of my exams in university. It was frustrating. But because I was committed, I pushed myself to do it over and over until I ran out. Failure to reach the anticipated goal produces frustration in the person which fuels his/her behavior of attempting, again and again, to succeed in the goal that is viewed as within reach (Amsel, 1958).
Carefully managed interruptions can also be effective in motivating an individual to resume their task. This explains the effectiveness and appeal of the Pomodoro Technique, which involves a timed interruption of 5-minutes every 25-minutes of work.
3. Motivation to learn.
Craig (1965) proposed that students’ motivation for continued learning is better encouraged by procedures that do not convey the finality of a task. In his study, students who did not receive a mathematical rule at the end of the task carried out more independent study after and performed better in a subsequent test, in comparison to students who received the rule. The rule in this case informed students that the learning for the task had finished.
This study showed that students were more motivated and retained their knowledge better when they were interested in the process of discovery without a specific goal in sight. Similarly, enjoying the process of learning itself can motivate us more than the outcome of learning itself. For example, scoring well in examinations does not necessarily translate into an individual’s understanding of the subject. Ames & Archer (1988) affirms that valuing the process of learning itself encourages us to be curious and discover new skills.
4. Good stress vs bad stress.
Facing challenges can of course cause stress, and stress can be detrimental to learning performance (e.g., Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009; Shors, 2006). Hence, it is important to remain aware of what your body is telling you despite your motivation levels saying otherwise.
Have you heard of the phrase “good stress” and “bad stress”? Good stress, or “eustress”, can involve excitement and adrenaline. This stress contributes towards an awareness of our surroundings. Bad stress will cause our body to break down, taking a toll on both an individual’s physical and mental well-being. Generally, chronic or long-term stress is harmful. However, short-term stress can have protective and beneficial effects. While having motivation to hustle is great, we should also listen to our bodies and know when to rest.
The “Hemingway effect” study was based on the outcome of two writing-related tasks. However, the Hemingway effect applies not to writing alone. As shown above, it can also apply in education, and create a cognitive, creative, physical, work, and social impact on an individual. I hope that this piece reminds you of ways to keep yourself motivated. Try to enjoy the learning process and journey itself too!
For further reading, check out this article on how to stay disciplined when you run out of motivation.