Ever find yourself feeling guilty because you put a book down halfway through? You're still on the third level of that game you bought a year ago? Or maybe you left a movie in the middle of it? The guilt's a strange feeling, and it's not as much about the lost money as you'd expect. Here's what's going on when you're feeling that odd guilt.
The guilt of walking away from something unfinished isn't new, but it's still hard to really pinpoint exactly why so many of us feel bad about not finishing a book or other entertainment. With the Kindle, Steam, iTunes and everything else, it's easy to get what we want instantly, and that means it's just as easy to walk away from it without thinking twice about why we do it.
So, what's going on? Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, clinical psychologist Matthew Willhelm suggests it has to do with personality type:
Certain types of people are more likely to push through a book. Dr. Wilhelm theorizes that people with competitive, Type-A personalities might be more likely to abandon a book because they tend to be motivated by reward and punishment, and "if there are no consequences or public recognition, why finish?"
Conversely, he says more laid-back, Type-B personalities may never start a book they know they won't finish. The more important motivator of finishing a book, says Dr. Wilhelm, is social pressure, which is why book clubs are so good at getting readers to the epilogue.
It's also the fact that stopping something midway is stressful. Whether it's a book, a movie, or anything else, walking away in the middle goes against our nature. Wilhelm describes it:
"There is a tendency for us to perceive objects as 'finished' or 'whole' even though they may not be. This motivation is very powerful and helps to explain anxiety around unfinished activities."
While the focus of The Wall Street Journal article is on books, it's applicable to pretty much any form of entertainment. The anxiety that comes from a book half-finished is no different than a game, movie, or whatever else. If you experience this guilt, you can do a few things to keep it from creeping up on you too deeply.
How To Get Through All Your Media
Not everyone has the problem of a guilt-ridden half-finished book. As The Atlantic points out, many people actually relish the idea of leaving things unfinished. Writer Jen Doll offers a simple suggestion: come up with a system for when it's OK to abandon a book:
I am an unabashedly proud leaver of half-finished books, and even more terrible, I have books all over my apartment and office that I haven't even started. I feel worse about the books I haven't started, because inside of them there are likely to be great treasures. That's not exactly guilt, more of a fear of missing out. As for the book that simply didn't grab me by the first 100 pages — well, I consider that giving the book a chance. That's the first and maybe even the second date, the time in which I must be enticed in order to go forward. If it's just not working, you set the book aside and move on. There's not enough time in life to feel bad about a book you're reading! (I do this with TV shows, movies, and other forms of entertainment as well.)
Doll's method doesn't actually fix the problem, but the system itself is solid. Give yourself a endpoint. If you're not enjoying something, walk away guilt free.
If you feel guilty about not finishing something, lend it to a friend, delete it from your hard drive, or get rid of it in any way you can. If it's out of your sight, the guilt isn't going to bother you nearly as much.
The other approach is to just finish it. It sounds stupid, but if you feel guilty about not reading a book because you simply don't have the time then it might be time to reboot your schedule to fit reading into it. That might include joining a book club to get some social support, or just giving yourself a block of time daily to enjoy it. Likewise, you can speed up your reading to help get through the backlog of books. Finally, as The Wall Street Journal points out, it's also about how you view the process of reading the book itself:
Some psychologists look at bailing on books on the spectrum of task persistence. Meena Dasari, a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine, works mostly with children in her private practice. She says that the ability to maintain a task even as any rewards and discontent fluctuate depends on what we attribute those feelings to. "If you say, 'I'm not smart enough,' then you're likely to give up," she says. "But if you say, 'This is just a difficult book,' you're more likely to complete it." Additionally, if your peer group or book club has finished the book, those outside forces can be powerful. "The time I finished the most books was when I was in a book club," Dr. Dasari says.
The fact is, bailing on a book, a movie, a comic, a game, or anything else really isn't that bad. It seems silly to feel guilty about it, but it happens to a lot of us even though we know better. If you have a bit of guilt, get the media out of your face. Donate it to a friend, a used shop, or a thrift store and move on. If it's a digital copy, delete it from your hard drive, your iPad, your Kindle, or whatever else.