You know those days when you soooo do not want to practice?
Where you sort of putz around the house looking for an excuse to do almost anything else?
On the plus side, I suppose those are the days when the produce drawers of your refrigerator get cleaned and the contents of your bathroom cabinets are finally organized by size, shape, and color. But those things don’t leave us feeling especially great about ourselves at the end of the day.
That inner drive sure is nice when it’s there, on those days when we feel motivated to develop our skills, learn new rep, or prepare for an upcoming performance or audition. And yes, there is something to be said for having a non-negotiable daily routine. Or sucking it up and just doing the work.
But it’s probably not realistic to assume that we’re always going to feel motivated or be able to will ourselves to do the work. So, fortunately, on days when our willpower is sapped, it seems there may be another source of motivation that we can try to tap into.
It’s called the “resumptive drive.” Or the Zeigarnik effect (which sounds a bit cooler, I think).
What’s this all about?
Waiters and memory
Bluma Zeigarnik described a phenomenon way back in 1927, in which she observed while sitting in a restaurant that waiters seemed to have a selective memory. As in, they could remember complicated customers’ orders that hadn’t yet been filled, but once all the food had been served (or maybe when the bill was paid?), it’s as if the order was wiped from their memory.
Back in her lab, she found that indeed, participants were much more likely to remember tasks they started but didn’t finish, than tasks that were completed (hence, the Zeigarnik effect).
Another form of the Zeigarnik effect – and the one more relevant to what we’re talking about here – is the observation that people tend to be driven to resume tasks in which they were interuppted and unable to finish.
The resumptive drive
Researchers at Texas Christian University & University of Rochester (Reeve et al., 1986) ran a study on this form of the Zeigarnik effect.
Subjects were given eight minutes to shape an eight-cube, three-dimensional puzzle into five different forms. They were told to work as quickly as possible, and given three minutes to complete the first two puzzles as practice.
Then they were given five minutes to solve the last three puzzles.
The researchers deliberately made the second practice puzzle difficult – one that was unlikely to be solved within the time available. And just as they had hoped, only 6 of the 39 participants solved the difficult puzzle.
After their time was up, the participants had eight minutes of free time to do as they wished while the researcher running the experiment left the room to retrieve some questionnaires they accidentally forgot to bring, saying they would be back in “5 or 10 minutes.” This was all a ruse, of course, to see what the participants would do when left alone.
Despite there being other things in the room to do (e.g. a TV, magazines, newspaper, etc.), 28 of the 39 participants (72%) resumed working on the puzzles.
But wait! That’s not actually the cool part.
The cool part
What’s interesting, is that those who completed the challenging puzzle were far less likely to resume working on the puzzles in their free time than those who did not complete the puzzle.
Of the six who completed the difficult puzzle, only one (17%) resumed working on the puzzles (and did so for one minute and 18 seconds).
Of the 33 who did not complete the challenging puzzle, 27 (82%) resumed working on the puzzle. And on average, they spent more than two and a half times as long (3:20) working on the puzzles.
So, when interrupted in the middle of a task, not only were participants more motivated to resume working on that task, but they also continued working on it for much longer.
So how can we apply this finding to our practice motivation issue?
There are a couple things you could try.
Thing #1: Just start, don’t worry about finishing
Many have found that simply getting started is 90% of the challenge (and yes, I totally made up that number…but you get the point).
It’s like washing dishes. If I have a sink full of dirty dishes, and think about the sink of dishes, I’m likely to put it off. But if all I think about is washing one dish, or simply putting the silverware in the dishwasher, it often ends up being easier to just keep going than it is to stop and leave the task half-done.
So instead of thinking about practicing for an hour, or having to work on 10 excerpts, or memorize a concerto, just tune your instrument. Or play a scale really slowly. Or set the timer for five minutes and pick one little thing to fix. And if at the end of five, you don’t feel like continuing, put your instrument away and try again later.
Thing #2: Leave problems unsolved (what?!)
Once you’ve played yourself into the mood to practice, try ending your practice session in the middle of a task. Meaning, if you’re working on a tricky passage that has you stumped, do test out a few possible solutions, but don’t try them all! Leave yourself a couple untested solutions remaining for when you get back from your practice break.
See if stopping in the middle of your problem-solving process makes it easier, and more motivating, to get back to practicing when your break ends. And not just because your last practice session feels like it ended on a plot cliffhanger, but because you also don’t have to think too hard about where to get started and what to do when you start your next block of practice.
A version of this article was originally posted on 03.01.2014; reposted on 02.20.2022.
Reeve, J., Cole, S. G., & Olson, B. C. (1986). The Zeigarnik effect and intrinsic motivation: Are they the same? Motivation and Emotion, 10(3), 233–245. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00992318