Weekly I/O #27
Zeigarnik Effect, Quantity Predicts Quality, Writing Is Thinking, Differentiation Is Survival, Price Of Yourself
Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.
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The below is extracted from the email sent on Jun 13, 2021
Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering this week.
1. Zeigarnik Effect: People remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks
Article: The Zeigarnik Effect Explained
In 1927, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters in a cafe could recall the order they had not yet delivered than those they had. The later conducted experiment suggested that a desire to complete a task can help it be retained in one’s memory until it has been completed. Also, the completion of the tasks enables the process of forgetting it to take place. Zeigarnik’s findings revealed that participants could recall details of interrupted tasks around 90% better than those that they had been able to complete undisturbed.
We might all experienced while preparing for an exam. After an exam, we often find it hard to remember the things we were studying and had good understanding previously since we no longer have an immediate use for the information.
This effect can also explain why when we start working on something but do not finish it, thoughts of the unfinished work will continue to pop into our find even when we have moved on to other things. We can find such application of the effect in the cliffhanger of a TV show or LinkedIn’s user profile completion process where there’s a progress bar telling users how close they are to complete their profile.
Though much research supports the Zeigarnik effect, it is noteworthy that the result can also be undermined by things like people’s motivation to complete the task, how difficult that task is, and the timing of task interruption.
2. When it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.
In the book, Adam Grant said, it’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality. In other words, if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it. However, he thinks this is false since people who produced masterpieces, like Shakespeare, Mozart, or Einstein, actually produced tons of work that didn’t have much impact.
In the book Art & Fear, the authors also shared a story that supports this concept. In a film photography class at the University of Florida, the professor divided students into two groups: quantity group and quality group. The former group would be graded only on the number of photos submitted by each student, whereas the latter group would be graded solely on the excellence of the photos.
At the end of the term, the professor found out that all the best photos were from the quantity groups. Since the quantity groups were busying taking photos, testing and experimenting with all kinds of methods, they learned from mistakes and honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group spent most of the time speculating about perfection. In the end, they more tend to have only unverified theories and mediocre photos because of their perfectionism. You can also find the whole story at Why Trying to Be Perfect Won’t Help You Achieve Your Goals (And What Will) from Atomic Habits.
3. Writing is thinking. You can write first then derive clear perspectives from your own writing.
Michael Chou is the author of Daodu.tech (科技島讀), the subscription newsletter about technology and business strategy. It is like the Traditional Chinese version of Stratechery from Ben Thompson.
In the last episode of Daodu.tech’s podcast, Michael was asked about his suggestion on writing and how to be informative. He answered that, when you haven’t had a clear thought to elaborate, you should start writing first and the idea will get more concrete and clear by the process of writing. Therefore, you just have to start writing. Writing itself is thinking.
This also resonated with what Mark Zuckerberg said in his 2017 Harvard Commencement Address. “Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started”.
4. Differentiation is Survival and the Universe Wants You to be Typical
In Jeff Bezos’ final annual letter to shareholders, he mentioned a passage from Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker:
“Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. Left to itself — and that is what it is when it dies — the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with its environment. If you measure some quantity such as the temperature, the acidity, the water content or the electrical potential in a living body, you will typically find that it is markedly different from the corresponding measure in the surroundings. Our bodies, for instance, are usually hotter than our surroundings, and in cold climates they have to work hard to maintain the differential. When we die the work stops, the temperature differential starts to disappear, and we end up the same temperature as our surroundings. Not all animals work so hard to avoid coming into equilibrium with their surrounding temperature, but all animals do some comparable work. For instance, in a dry country, animals and plants work to maintain the fluid content of their cells, work against a natural tendency for water to flow from them into the dry outside world. If they fail they die. More generally, if living things didn’t work actively to prevent it, they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. That is what happens when they die.”
If we were normal, things would often be a little bit easier. When the environment wants to bring us into its equilibrium, it takes energy and continuous effort to stay away from that. Maintaining distinctiveness isn’t easy nor free, but it is the key to survival.
5. “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself” — Rudyard Kipling
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Many people on the Internet used this as a misquote of Nietzsche. Though it did sound like what Friedrich Nietzsche might have said, it’s a quote from the English writer Rudyard Kipling.
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