To Increase Your Chances of Success, Acknowledge “The Hemingway Effect”

Jon Hawkins

Does failing a task increase your chances of completing it?

Falling short is often considered a fundamental form of failure.

From an outsiders perspective, the fact the task remains incomplete signifies both a deficiency with the task itself, but also the person who was unable to complete it. And, in everyday life, such failures take place alongside a demand for success:

  • Children fail to tidy their room, despite being told to by their parents.
  • Students fail to finish a task before the end of a test.
  • Researchers fail to achieve writing goals they set for the day.

And these failures are regularly tied to negative consequences — such as being reprimanded by your parents, receiving a bad test mark, or feeling disappointed.

But is there only a negative side to not completing a task? Or does failing increase your chances of completing it (at a later date).

That’s the thesis from Psychologist Yoshinori Oyama when researching the Hemingway Effect.

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

The Hemingway Effect

In sum, the “Hemingway effect” refers to the phenomena that, under certain circumstances, failing to finish a task can have beneficial effects on your motivation to finish.

That is, failing to complete a task can actually enhance people’s motivation to engage in it — and that leaves them more likely to succeed in it.

Ernest Hemingway

When asked “how much should you write in one day,” American Novelist Ernest Hemingway responded:

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck”

This advice indicates that leaving a task incomplete can have positive motivational effects. In writing, for example, this occurs when the author feels the writing is going well, and to know exactly how to proceed.

According to Oyama, these positive effects in failure arise when the participant is reasonably close to completing the task, such that completing it is within their grasp, while at the same time perceiving the task as somewhat challenging.

This is because, upon failing a task:

  • If the task is too far beyond their grasp, it’s likely that he/she will disregard it as too difficult, and therefore give up.
  • If, by comparison, the author were to finish the task with ease — then they wouldn’t feel adequately challenged, hence he/she wouldn’t regard the task as worthwhile, so would be unlikely to re-engage.

Why Does Failing a Task Have Positive Effects?

During early research, Psychologists Bluma Zeigarnik and Maria Ovsiankina (1927,1928,) conducted an experiment where participants were asked to complete a task. During which half were left to their own devices, and the other half were interrupted mid flow – to ensure they failed.

During this experiment, Zeigarnik found participants were more likely to remember (and therefore be motivated to return to) tasks they left unfinished, and Ovsiankina found they had a tendency to resume tasks they had not yet completed.

According to Ovsiankina, this indicates that not being able to complete a task creates some form of internal pressure on people that makes them want to try again until they finish it.

According to this research, these results indicate that not being able to complete a task you are trying to perform creates an internal pressure that makes you want to pick it up again until you finish it.

The Conditions Needed For Successful Failure

The Hemingway effect, according to Oyama, doesn’t follow the belief that you’re more likely to succeed if you’ve failed at something previously.

Instead, it’s the claim that you’re more likely to complete a task if you’ve previously failed and the end of the task is in sight. This is because, if you fail and the end isn’t in sight, you’re more likely to disregard the task as impossible, and in your jaded state of mind, give up.

In testing the Hemingway effect, Oyama tested the hypothesis that the smaller the amount a person has remaining on an uncompleted task, the more motivated that person would be in continuing to finish it.

They underwent an experiment using a manual writing task. They asked 260 undergraduate students to copy text from Newspaper articles. Though it was devoid of any learning for the participants, it would have been very easy for each of them to determine how far away they were from finishing the task.
To enduce “failure” in each participant, they chose to interrupt them mid-task, distracting them to a state of failure.

Their results indicated that the success of their task (after failure,) was closely related to:

  • Pre-task motivation (how interested they were in the task).
  • Remaining text, with a negative correlation (that is, the more the remaining task, the more likely they were to fail).
  • Hope of success.

Therefore Oyama’s research directly supports the claim that your chances of success after failure are directly related to how close or far away the end goal is.

“Giving up is the only sure way to fail.” — Gena Showalter

Utilize “The Hemingway Effect” to Increase Your Chances of Success

Following Oyama’s research, there are a few things that we can do to increase the likelihood of us successfully completing the tasks we undergo:

  • First and foremost, pick tasks that you are motivated to complete.
  • Pick tasks that are worthwhile — ones that you deem enough of a challenge for it to benefit you (ie. you learn from it,) without it being so difficult that it becomes impossible to complete.
  • In accordance with the Hemingway effect, if you do fail the task, try and make it such that the end goal is insight, and produce a plan such that it’s nearly in your grasp already.

You may be thinking that, upon failing, how much of the task remains uncompleted is down to external factors beyond our control. But, when faced with failure, there are a few things you can do to make the goal appear closer insight, which will inevitably motivate you further and make you quitting less likely:

  1. First and foremost, after you’ve failed, shorten the task — focus on a small win, over no win at all.
  2. Set out a plan into small, manageable checkpoints — such that, no matter what, a checkpoint will always be near and in sight.

Final Thoughts

Ernest Hemingway was one of the most successful writers of all time. And when asked how one should write, he argued we should stop at a point where we know what’s going to happen next.

Psychologist, Yoshinori Oyama, used this hypothesis to found The Hemingway Effect. He discovered that, when faced with failure, we are more likely to get back up and succeed when:

  • We are motivated to complete the task (and were when we began).
  • We find the task worthwhile.
  • The end goal is insight, such that if we were to get back up and restart after failing, we would have finished with ease.

You can use these important lessons to increase your chances of succeeding in your day to day tasks. After failure, for example, you can proactively ensure the goal is in sight by shortening the task at hand, or setting out shorter checkpoints and sub-goals that are easily attained.

In doing so, you will be more willing to get back up and perservere after failure, rather than giving up completely. And that new-found grit and determination could be the reason that you are successful.

Most importantly, Oyama has illustrated that failure isn’t final. You can quite easily turn it around and succeed. After all:

“The phoenix must burn to emerge.” — Janet Fitch

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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