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Harnessing the Power of Endings
As well as writing blog posts and the occasional ebook, I write fiction. And one of the things I struggle with most is endings.
You've read novels and watched TV series and seen movies, so you'll understand why. A great ending sticks with you, and makes up for almost any number of blips along the way. But an unsatisfying ending can ruin a brilliantly written novel or a gripping movie.
The first 98% of the movie [Schindler's List] was brilliant, the final 2 per cent was stupid, and I remembered not liking the movie because (for me) it had ended badly. The only strange thing about this memory is that I've sat through an awful lot of films whose proportion of brilliance was significantly less than 98 per cent, and I remember liking some of them quite a bit. The difference is that in those films the stupid parts were at the beginning, or in the middle, or somewhere other than the very end.
(Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, p202) Of course, this doesn't just apply to stories. Endings are important in every area of our lives. When you think back to a memorable time – like college, a conference trip, Christmas festivities – you'll probably find that the ending is clear in your mind (plus a few highlights along the way):
Whenever a person thinks about a significant event in their life, they usually first remember the “peak” event that occurred and generally reflect on the event based on how it ended. For example, my immediate memories of the trip to Chicago center on the day I took my son to his first major league baseball game (and the harrowing trip away from the ballpark) as well as the wonderful steak dinner at my cousin’s home the final night.
What’s amazing is that this same “peak-end rule” works with almost every vacation I’ve ever taken.
(Trent Hamm, Some Thoughts on Inexpensive Vacations, The Simple Dollar)
Making Endings Count
Knowing that endings are powerful is only useful when you can apply it to aspects of your life: when you can use the end-effect to get the most out of a particular situation.
This is something which I currently only manage to do in a fairly hit-and-miss way. But over the past few years, I've noticed the impact which endings have. Here's a couple of examples:
My first job was as a student, doing data entry alongside a couple of others for a biopharmaceutical company. I've got fond memories of it (despite it being, objectively, a pretty tedious job – we worked overtime for several weeks as well) because at the end of it (a) our line managers took us out for a great lunch and (b) I bought my first laptop with my overtime bonus.
I had an brilliant time at SXSW 2010, partly because of all the memorable moments along the way (like the Productivity Lunch which led to Thursday Bram and me launching Constructively Productive...) but the main reason I'm determined to go back in 2011 was because of an awesome last night with a bunch of fantastic people, thanks to Kelly Kingman hosting a party.
Sure, it's not always easy to plan the perfect ending. But I've got a few ideas now:
I'm off on honeymoon in September, and when I sit down with my wonderful fiancÃ© to plan a few activities, we'll make sure we have something special happening on the last day.
I've realized how I miss the end-of-the-work-week feeling that I used to have on Fridays. (Now I work for myself, the week doesn't really end so much as drift on into the next week...) I'm gonna take a leaf out of Charlie's book and aim for a definite stop on Fridays and some peaceful weekends.
At every conference I attend, I'm insisting that someone throws a great party on the final day and invites me along. ;-)
Of course, the end-effect isn't just about big multi-day events. Endings have the potential to make you happier (or not) on a daily basis.
How do you normally end your work day?
What do you do before bed in the evenings?
If you're always frantically racing through emails at 5pm, you may feel like your whole day was rushed. If you find it hard to focus for most of the day and end up working on into the evening, it might seem like you can never get away from work.
If you find yourself slumped in front of the TV after dinner, watching shows you don't particularly care about ... or aimlessly surfing the net ... or running around doing chores ... you're unlikely to look back and feel that was a great day.
Pace and Kyeli really brought this one home to me, with their chapter on "Endings" in The Usual Error (the bulk of the book focuses on communication):
Through simple scheduling, you can now make any potentially unpleasant thing more bearable. Simply make sure to schedule fun or relaxing things directly after the dreaded event. Put your less fun tasks closer to the beginning of your day, rather than near the end. If something emotionally difficult comes up with your partner in the evening, make sure to get some relaxing, cuddling, or other such happy bonding time after, so as to not end on a sour note.
(Pace and Kyeli Smith, "Endings" in The Usual Error) So what do good daily endings look like? I'm definitely not fully there yet, but I'm trying to get some of these into my life on a more regular basis:
Ending the work day in a positive way, with an exercise session.
Doing something I enjoy after dinner, like watching a favourite show (True Blood is top of my list at the moment...)
Winding down before bed by reading fiction instead of surfing the net for "just a few more minutes"
I find that journaling about my day also helps me reflect on the bright spots – and lets me get any worries off my mind.
I'll end this post with a couple of questions for you:
Pick an event (vacation, conference, project, etc) which is coming up. How can you make sure it ends on a high note?
What one thing could you do to give yourself a more positive end to today?