Why stopping work mid-flow can make you more productive

Published on August 16, 2023 by Andrew
A typewriter on a table in Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home

Nobel laureate, Ernest Hemmingway wrote seven novels, six short-story collections and two works of non-fiction. Throughout his career, he maintained a strict writing timetable. 

He would start at first light and write until around noon, always stopping mid-flow, sometimes even midsentence, at a point when he knew clearly what was going to happen next.

In a 1958 interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review, Hemingway said, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.” 

This technique – known by many as the “Hemingway trick” – doesn’t just apply to writing. Stopping mid-sentence (even metaphorically) can help you to get a clean break from work while also helping you to hit the ground running the next day. It could even improve your overall productivity.

Keep reading to find out how to embrace this ethos in your daily work and discover the three main reasons why you should.

1. Avoid starting the day with a blank page

Children’s author Roald Dahl is said to have employed the Hemingway trick. Ending a day’s work by finishing a section or chapter meant starting the next working day with a blank page, a terrifying prospect for both authors.

You might consider finishing your day mid-email. How the technique works for you will depend on the type of work you do but the benefits are transferable across all sectors.

Starting the day with a blank sheet can be intimidating, and psychologically, it can take you longer to get into “work mode”. 

Leaving yourself a clear jumping-off point, or even a small task like an email to complete and send, is a great way to ease you into the day. Having slept on it, you might find the task is easier, or that you approach it differently.

Either way, your day will be off to a flying start.

2. You might switch off for the day but your brain won’t

Switching off “mid-sentence” (whatever that looks like for you) gives you peace of mind and a sense of calm. You know what you have to do when you get to work the next morning and so you can switch off.

But even as you relax, your brain will continue to mull over what it considers unfinished business. 

Psychologist World explains something known as the Zeigarnik Effect. In 1927, the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik used waiters to examine memory and what happened when our memory processes were interrupted.

She found that if a complicated order was interrupted or left unfinished, it was easier to remember than a completed order. Once we reach a natural endpoint and receive closure, the information leaves our brains. Interrupt or switch off before the end, though, and our brains hold onto the information, hoping that a resolution will be reached.

Finish your working day mid-flow and your brain won’t allow you to forget where you were. It will retain the information until it can get closure. 

Not only that, but it will also continue to work on the problem overnight. 

You might begin to work the next day with a completely different outlook on something you could have (unsatisfactorily) concluded the night before.

3. Hit the ground running and improve your productivity

Avoiding “blank-page syndrome” isn’t just the key to starting your day well. This is because how you start the day has a huge impact on how it progresses.

Imagine parking your car on a downhill slope. Not only is starting easier, but you’ll be up to speed more quickly, and with less effort.

You’ll find this conserved effort will prove useful later in the day as natural fatigue sets in. And when the day begins to wind down, resist the urge to reach a natural stopping point.

Try your best to finish mid-sentence. That might mean midway through an email or a line of code. Find a way to duplicate this effect in whatever work you do. Even stopping household chores midway could help you make use of the Hemingway technique.

You’ll have a clear starting point the next time you begin, plus a quick and easy task to complete to get you started.

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