Productivity wisdom from a 5-year-old LEGO builder

How leaving something unfinished when you know what the next step is can help you being productive.

Yesterday, my son finished his LEGO playing session by saying, “I’m going to make some space here and leave these pieces here, so tomorrow when I see them, I’ll know where to start building.”

He then proceeded to shove away LEGOs from part of his table and left the base and cabin of the fire truck he’d been working on there.

Without knowing it, my son deployed a tactic long known in the creative circles to help keep the pace day after day: Finish when you know what’s going to happen next.

The most famous proponent of this approach was Ernest Hemingway. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1958, he described his daily writing process as one where “you write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next.”

Test-Driven Development practitioners call this approach the Broken Test Pattern. Here’s how Kent Beck describes it in Test-Driven Development by Examples:

How do you leave a programming session when you’re programming alone? Leave the last test broken.

[…] Finish a solo session by writing a test case and running it to be sure it doesn’t pass.
When you come back to the code, you then have an obvious place to start.
You have an obvious, concrete bookmark to help you remember what you were thinking.

This technique is straightforward for software developers because they can always leave a build broken or a test failing, but any project of nontrivial complexity can be left in an unfinished state. We can generalize this advice to the whole of knowledge work as:

Stop working on a problem when you already know what your next step will be.

Knowing what the next step should be is a crucial caveat of this process. Without that knowledge, the brain won’t be able to close the proverbial loop for the task and consider it unfinished. Unfinished tasks are a burden to our brains. They keep absorbing mental resources and can lead to rumination, stress, and distraction.

Remember Hemingway’s words, get to a place where you know what happens next. When you stop intentionally and know how to continue, your brain can take a break and fully engage in the next task. Stopping intentionally has a completely different effect on your subconscious than being forced to stop working on something by an outside interruption.

I couldn’t find any research on the effectiveness of this technique, but there is enough anecdotal evidence from practitioners using it, from 5-year-olds master builders all the way to literary legends, to grant you giving it a shot.

Today, end your day with a broken test, a report left midsentence, or a build half-assembled on your workbench.

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