The Curse of Completism

Like many others in this productivity-centered world, I have an addiction to completion. This addiction runs the gamut from finishing writing Medium posts to catching up on every episode of whatever Netflix series I’m currently obsessing over (right now it’s, oddly, Xena:Warrior Princess).

This completism is an affliction that seems to infect many in our generation. We’re convinced that we’re only as good as our output, so if we’re not outputting, then we’re not succeeding.

Just think about the recent phenomenon of “binge watching,” where you hurl away all weekend plans in service of finishing a series in a day or two. Our need to feel completed compels us to watch enough television to make our eyes bleed.

I get anxiety when I haven’t completed something. The feeling of something left open-ended keeps me up at night. My phone is loaded with enough podcasts to keep me busy for a century. I’ve spent hours devising a strategy of how I can listen to all of these before I expire. Unfortunately, as soon as I’ve discovered a successful plan, a new crop piles onto the mountain of unlistened to podcasts, unread books, unwatched movies, unwritten novels.

I’ve realized that this list will never end.

Photo by Amy McTigue (Creative Commons)

Completism can be a positive trait for sure. Abandoning a task never brings satisfaction and it’s important to see things through.

But there’s a darkside to this type of thinking. The Zeigarnik effect is a phenomenon studied by Bluma Zeigarnik, a Soviet psychologist who studied how our memory works regarding uncompleted and completed tasks. Zeigarnik found that our minds remember incomplete tasks over completed tasks and can produce intrusive thoughts about the thing left unfinished. We’ve all been there, half aware that we’re in line at the coffee shop or picking up the kids, nagged by thoughts of that report we need to finish or that dry cleaning needing to be taken in.

Due to this “monkey” or overly busy mind, we create thought loops reminding us constantly of what needs to be done. This can cause an enormous amount of stress as we attempt to tackle the hills of “to do.”

This is where a To Do list can cause more calamity and stress than its intended purpose of alleviating our burdens.

I get the feeling that completing a task has become too high of a priority over actually doing the damn thing correctly. I’m quick to toss aside finished projects and move onto the next, even when there’s loads of work to go before it’s truly finished (and, as all writers know, a project is never truly finished).

Rather than judging the work for how well I’ve done it, I’m judging my work by how much I’ve done.

We are saturated with messages of goal setting. This creates the feeling that we will only feel complete when that goal is done.

However, anyone who has ever completed a major goal has probably gotten that feeling of ‘meh’ when they’re done. Rarely, if ever, does completing a goal deliver the result we thought it would. Completion of a goal simply works as a trigger to move onto the next task in the neverending list.

This concept was illustrated beautifully in a Twilight Zone episode from 1960 entitled “The Chaser.” In the show, a man purchases a love potion and uses it on a woman who he has been chasing for years, thinking that her love is the only thing that will make him complete. Far from bliss, the woman annoys her suitor as she becomes clingy and overbearing, causing the man to regret ever using the potion.

It’s the old message of “be careful what you wish for”

We tell ourselves that we’ll be happy when we finally finish that novel, we get the girl, get the promotion, become president; whatever that ultimate goal might be. Yet often we let this goal cloud our enjoyment of the process.

In 2006 I completed my first novel, a life goal I set for myself when I was a teenager. I imagined myself conquering the arduous mountain climb of writing a book and feeling proud of myself, complete.

But upon writing “The End” in comically oversized writing, my reaction was much different in reality. Rather than a sigh of relief and a pat on the back, I only thought “What’s next?”

A particular depression set in as I realized that my purpose over the past year disappeared. Now I had a book that maybe ten people would read and no ideas.

What did I need to complete next?

Two books, three screenplays later and I’m still asking that question. The victorious feeling of completing a project diminished with each “The End,” replaced with a feeling that maybe I should have spent my time doing something more worthwhile with my valuable free time, like day trading or learning to code or starting a dog-walking service. Anything, really.

But I know that wasn’t the real problem.

I’d forgotten that I write because I enjoy it. There’s an undeniable need to create among all writers and artists, even if the work never sees the outside of our homes.

This revelation changed my outlook. I started to think of each project not as something to complete, but rather something to enjoy, something to be passionate about.

The End?

There’s an old cliche that the journey is more important than the destination. I’m not usually one for cliches, but I think in this case, the idea rings true.

For the destination is the same for all of us: Death.

Perhaps we create because we want to transcend death. Maybe that’s why I get anxious to finish all of the ideas in my head. I need to get it all out before I die.

Hmm, is that a depressing thought or a hopeful one? I’m not sure.

But the process is where happiness derives from. Completion only signals us to move onto the next.

When our mind is stuck on completion, we miss the subtle gold nuggets that come from everyday life.

And this idea does not only relate to art, but to life in general.

Consider this scene: It’s the 4th of July and you set out with your family to watch the neighborhood fireworks.

You’re already late. The kids move slow (as they tend to do when you need to be somewhere). Your wife is still getting ready. You’re anxious because you want to catch the fireworks with your family.

You sweat. You yell. You rush.

Amazingly, you make it to the fireworks just in time. Your family is having a great time, laughing, playing on the grass. Yet your anxiety lingers from earlier. The perfect experience you envisioned in your mind is lost. Not because anything went wrong, but because you obsess over the deviations from your original plan.

In cases like this, we forget the original point: To spend time with our family. Rather than enjoy the time we had with our family, we obsess about completing the (frankly unrealistic) goal we envisioned in our heads.

If you need another example, think of your mindstate during your wedding. This doesn’t apply to all of you, but most spend their wedding obsessing over details and worrying if the guests are having a good time, rather than simply enjoying the moment.

That’s why I’ve never been enamored by vision boards or Rhonda Byrne’s Jedi Mind Tricks. These methods focus too much on goal completion rather than goal enjoyment.

It’s always important to remember why we do things. If you want to write a book because you enjoy writing, then don’t forget to actually enjoy the writing part. Worrying about completing the book will only create more obsessive thoughts about completing whatever the next task might be.

Next time you tune out during your 15th consecutive episode of Breaking Bad, think about why you are watching the show in the first place. Do you enjoy watching the story unfold? Then why not spread your enjoyment out for a little while longer?

And what if you don’t enjoy it?

Simply throw it out. There will be many more things worthwhile for you to complete.

Remember, we all complete our lives the same way. All stories end with a closed book. It’s up to you to make sure those pages are filled with something worthwhile.