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Airplane costume + the power of the unfinished


Every morning, my son asks me if we’re going to the airport. I say no, not today. Then he asks if he should get his shoes on, just in case I change my mind.

He lives and breathes airplanes right now. Naturally, he’s going to be one for Halloween, and I’m tasked with fashioning an airplane costume out of cardboard.

Also naturally, I’ve been procrastinating this task. (Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this.)

I had “start costume” on my to-do list yesterday, but didn’t get to it in the afternoon. Just before he went to bed though, I found a cardboard box, opened the bottom, and had him stand inside to gauge whether it was the right size for the body of the airplane. He hopped in and out a few times, then went to bed.

As I reviewed my to-do list at the end of the day, I was about to mark the costume item as undone. But then I realized – wait. I DO get to cross “start costume” off of my list. It may have only been the tiniest step. I didn’t design or cut or paint or glue anything, but I DID accomplish the smallest of beginnings: I found a box that fits him.

Right now as I sit at my desk working, I’m finding I’m really eager to get back and add wings.

This, my friends, is called the Ovsiankina Effect. When we start something, and get interrupted, we want to go back and finish. It kind of bugs us until we do. We want the sense of closure.

Here’s why I tell you about this:

I don’t know about you, but when I decide when to do something, I want to wait for the ‘perfect window’ when I can complete an entire task. Things get put off because I want to find an uninterrupted three hour window when I can cut and glue the whole costume.

Do you know what I mean?

This happens at work, too: I want time to do a full blog post, or time to figure out an entire marketing strategy. I want to get the whole shebang done in one swoop!

And so when I look at the clock and see it’s 11:37am and I need to be done with work by 12, well, time to go see if there are any emails that need answering. Because I know I can get a few emails done in that time – but no way can I finish that bigger project.

This is part of why we let small, “urgent” tasks overtake bigger, more valuable ones.

We don’t feel we have enough time to complete the big important thing, so we think okay, I can at least do a small thing I can feel ‘done’ with. The satisfaction of hitting “send” substitutes for making progress on larger priorities.

But we can use the Ovsiankina Effect to our benefit.

If I used that 23 minutes between 11:37am and 12:00 noon to do the first step of something, I deliberately create a mental tug that will make me want to come back and complete it the next day.

I don’t need three hours to finish – if I get started, it sets in motion a hard-to-resist pull that will bring me back to the task at my next chance. Even if the next chance is only a 15 minute window. Climbing hand-over-hand that way that is how you can get long-term projects done when you don’t have big windows of time.

This pull of the unfinished task is going to be uncomfortable, which is why we avoid creating it.

I’d rather finish an email and savor feeling “done” over starting a project I can’t complete.

But what if we looked at this another way:

We can be brave in starting big jobs that will take awhile, because we aren’t avoiding the job – we’re avoiding the discomfort of the unfinished.

Isn’t that a relief? The big thing you’ve been avoiding probably isn’t all that scary. And we can decide to use that discomfort as motivation, rather than letting it make us feel icky. We can treat the task like a good book we can’t wait to get back to, even if we can only cram ten minutes of reading between work and dinner.

The perfect window to fully complete a long-range task will probably never arrive.

Get started on some part of it in the time you do have, and let the ‘pull of the unfinished’ reel you back until it’s done.

For example:

  • Open and label a document, then type two sentences and half of a third. Leave the tab open.
  • Log into that video class you signed up for, and watch until they get to a good part, then hit pause.
  • Draft half of the scary email. Leave it mid-sentence. Leave the tab open.

See what happens.

I bet you’ll finish the thing before you even believe it. Ovsiankina Effect your way through it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some airplane wings to cut out.

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  1. Marina on November 22, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Great advice, Jenika ! So true 🙂 Thank you for the reminder! (and thanks for today’s newsletter on the same topic, so inspiring!)

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