The Shortcomings of Putting a Book Down Halfway Through

The small everyday triumphs that matter

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

The Count of Monte Cristo is a massive book. It is also a masterpiece. Many of us will pick it up and throw in the towel halfway through. It will go to join the other books with remaining dog-eared pages at the bottom of the shelf.

Much like the half-finished books lying around, other remnants of started but never completed plans and projects litter the room and so fill the empty spaces of your mind.

The follow-through is wanting.

The failing of not fulfilling a project to its end might appear self-evident; its resultant shortcomings, however, are rather more obscure to recognise. So allow me to introduce an analogy: A person has a choice each time they routinely run around their local park:

  1. Choose to run down the hill.
  2. Choose to run up the hill.
  3. Choose to do something different.

Generally, each of these systems demand a different level of effort respectively:

  1. Least Effort
  2. Most Effort
  3. Creative Effort

Run the same loop long enough and you’ll begin to grasp the routines of others. As a former amateur boxer and coach, you learn a thing or two from watching the behavioural choices of others when relating to the output of effort.

The crux is that everyday choices relating to effort become habitual: accustoming yourself to spend little effort on One thing, accustoms you to treat Ten things in the same manner. We are creatures of habit — therefore, it is in our best interest to choose the best habits with the most utility. Of course, this sounds simple and rational but we are not rational agents; thus, a nudge might be in order.

Down the Hill

Choosing to routinely run down the hill will keep both mind and body in a state of torpor. You may have even found running has lost much of its joy because it has become routine. Though the maintenance of the body has been attended to, the mind, or perhaps spirit, is left wanting. The mind has accustomed itself to taking a shortcut, and indeed, already does this thousands of times a day (whilst left field, implicit biases are one of these shortcuts).

Finding yourself in a rut, or lacking motivation, can be attributed to the way in which you have learned to expend (or avoid) effort.

The groundbreaking research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky delineated the human brain into two systems:

System 1 (Fast Thinking): Automatic, unconscious, least effort, susceptible to bias, and responsible for most of our daily thinking.

System 2 (Slow Thinking): Deliberate, requires effort, self-aware, seeks information, resiliant to bias.

Routinely running down the hill is the equivalent of System 1 thinking. The subconscious realises the effort required to run up the hill and so informs you to turn right, the path that takes you down the hill. This then becomes routine. This then becomes the rut because the challenge, the novelty, is lacking. When confronted with effort, the mind and body’s natural inclination to avoid it is thus strengthened. Avoiding effort becomes learned.

The book remains unread.

Up the Hill

This is the equivalent of System 2 thinking.

It requires mental effort, to urge the body’s natural inclination not to want to run down the hill, in anticipation of the physical effort required. Becoming aware, or conscious of the body’s inclination to avoid effort is enhanced with each run.

When running up the hill the physiology is lightly improved due to the change in heart rate variability when faced with a gradient. Both mind and body are strengthened.

There is also something to be said for the feeling of accomplishment when reaching the top of a steep hill. The hill not only prevents the torpor of the mind but triggers the feeling of winning (from grounded experience). “Winning” releases dopamine and it is why we tend to feel good afterwards when reaching the top!

Running up a hill each day is a micro-achievement that rewards you for delaying gratification, enduring and deliberate thinking.

The book is read.

Something Different

There’s one step further other than jogging up the hill. It is sprinting the hill. It is changing the route, perhaps running up the hill on one loop, and running down it on the other. It is introducing interval sprints.

It is introducing novelty by choice. This requires creative effort.

Even running up the hill may become effortless or prone to unconscious thinking if done often enough.

Introducing creativity even to the most mundane activities by its very nature promotes (trains) ways of thinking that circumnavigate the resulting despondency of finding yourself in a rut. The cost is that creativity requires dedicated effort and conviction; therefore, nurture this capacity of yourself, so that it becomes, paradoxically, less effortful.

You write the book.

The Steps to Finishing A Book

Run Up the Hill or Do Something Different

Take the road that requires something from you; the incremental improvements that occur as a result of the effort train you to not shy away from tasks that take deliberate conviction.

Follow-Through

If you start something, make sure to finish it. Similarly, when running towards the finish line, follow-through. This does not mean stopping at the finish line. Athletes run through the finish line.

For instance, if you’re working in software development, ensuring a period of reflection after the two-week sprint will help develop better accuracy in the estimation of time for projects going forward.

Similarly, when finishing a book, take time to consider what you learned from it. This is the reward for finishing.

Lift up the Mundane

Do the higher even if the lower is possible. This promotes attention and creative thinking. It trains you to not neglect the little things, and find joy where perhaps you thought there was none. Finishing a book may seem mundane, but developing the practice of getting through to the end may filter to other parts of your life.

Attack the Edges

When doing a jigsaw puzzle, you always begin with the corners. When faced against a bigger army, you attack its sides. When running a marathon, elite runners break the distance into short achievable chunks in their minds so the run itself does not feel overwhelming. Similarly, if faced with a big book, break it up into pages you can read in a sitting, such as 10 pages every day. It may seem a small mental switch, but by compartmentalizing the task, the assumed effort is diminished and will help you get you through to the end.

This goes for every other project or monumental task you set out to do. One step at a time.

The book is finished.

Voice Coach and Founder of Orator | Masters in Voice Studies, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama | Currently Coaching in London | www.oratorvoice.com

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