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How our obsession with 'completing' stuff can become a thrilling but damaging burden

Football stickers, Pogs, computer games - all pointless!

How our obsession with 'completing' stuff can become a thrilling but damaging burden
21 June 2018

I remember completing my first ever computer game, with a friend, in his parents’ study, in front of an old, yellow PC with a technical capacity laughable by today’s standards. It was Doom 2 and we finished it by using a thick wad of cheats, like two little scared babies - we had God mode, all weapons and we could run through walls. We completed the whole game in about ten minutes, if I recall - it was a farce of the highest order, but we were young, and we wanted to see what happened at the end of the game.

In the days before YouTube, if you wanted to see the end ‘movie’, you had to complete the game, it was the only way, and like shit were we going to actually try and play it when we could simply sprint in a straight line and blitz an entire level in a spare-time-friendly five seconds. So we sped-ran it, and excitedly watched the conclusion, which comprised a large screen of scrolling text, and then a quick rundown of all the bad guys and their individual deaths.

Imagine having spurted forth hours and hours worth of frustrated, terrified sweat to complete the game, and then all you get is a poxy one-page book and a video of the same thing you’ve just seen thousands and thousands of times? WHAT A WASTE OF TIME. What an utter, utter anti-climax.

But it’s not, actually, is it? Although this sense of completion was previously dormant within my young, soft body, Doom 2’s end screen had awoken something, nudged it from its slumber, and it was soon to burst forth from my chest, take my hand and lead me on a journey in the dogged pursuit of finality, a relentless quest to tie up all and any loose ends. Soon, I would grow to love the overwhelming sense of accomplishment that came with fully completing something, anything; regardless of the payoff.

Because really, you might expect that after putting hours of work into something, spending a considerable amount of time and effort investing in doing a task, that there’d be a reward at the end of it. Like, money or a fleeting brush with fame - put something in, get something out. But when, to use another example, I completed series two of Pogs, I got precisely zero payback - I had a nice shiny book with all those precious cardboard discs in, nicely arranged in order, but that was it. No reward, no compensation, no money (although I did look on eBay the other day and I reckon I can get about £25 for the whole lot - drinks are on me).

But who needs a physical reward when you can have the mental award of completion? The heavy sense of accomplishment that swept over my body was tough to top. Sure, my childish, be-chained wallet was empty, but my chest was full, swelling to breaking point, jutting forward - I now owned the entire set. And you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Because you have completed things before. You’ve probably completed a book of football stickers, before, haven’t you? I don’t even like football, and I have done this (almost, anyway, some chief nicked my Man United shiny) - it’s just something you do. You’re familiar with the end-game, too: when nothing happens

And yet, it feels so good. You stepped up to the plate, and you smashed it like an over-excited Brit abroad in Athens. No physical reward is needed, because the reward is the completion, it’s the destination, the summit. You may experience pain, sadness and desperation along the way, but when you finally place that final, elusive sticker down on the page, all is clear, all is fine. Your serotonin levels are soaring. You are home.

Is not the urge to ‘complete’ things is a minor compulsion that we all share? We’ve all forced ourselves to the end of a TV show. Read a magazine cover-to-cover for no other reason other than to satiate that weird humming at the top of your spine. Been utterly incensed in the face of someone leaving their pint glass on the table with even a smidgen of visible beer left in it? Of course you have, it’s entirely normal.

But why put ourselves through it? Well, according to psychologist and anxiety specialist Dr Zoubida Guernina:

“[An] unfinished task usually alters our cognition, inducing emptiness and anxiety, our mind prefers closed matters that are done.

“According to the Zeigarnicke effect, unfinished tasks trigger mental models that are related to stress, anxiety and psychic tension, but we feel better and relaxed when we close matters and complete tasks”

“It has been found in research that the brain activity is heightened and in an agitated state wanting to reach goals, but when it is done it shifts to a relaxed state - regardless of the outcome.”

So essentially, we can’t sodding well relax until things are done. Those niggling pins jamming into your brain every five minutes throughout the day? It’s because you ain’t completed your Panini book, you quitter. Finish it and you can feel whole again.

Thing is, this can be detrimental to your health, if you’re not careful - sometimes the need to finish becomes overwhelming. As I grew accustomed to the warm blanket of completion, I tore through games and movies at a heinous rate, desperate to reach the end, to strike them off my rapidly swelling to-do list - even sitting through films that I was resolutely not enjoying, just so I could add an imaginary DVD to the shelf in the library of content in my mind.

It was all about ticking things off, you see. It’s the reason I once preferred films over TV shows - watch a film and it’s done, you’ve seen it, but stick a TV show on and you’re playing a risky game. It might never finish, it might go on for years - nobody has ‘seen’ Game of Thrones yet, have they? But I have ‘seen’ Con Air - it has been filed, I can move onto the next one, forever collecting, forever tallying up.

Dr Zoubida Guernina likens this to certain disorders:

“Ruminating about tasks can lead to extreme mental states such as OCD , anxiety etc.”

I knew this all too well, and only now, in 2018, do I feel I have it under control. I play in moderation, collect in moderation, watch in moderation, complete in moderation - nothing changes that pure ecstasy of each very personal win, but you can have too much of a good thing - I have learned this the hard way.

I have the odd relapse - I watched Breaking Bad eight years after it started, very quickly, out of obligation, to say that I’d seen it, essentially - but for the most part, I now know not to embark on too many endeavours at the same time. I complete things one by one - it makes things much easier to digest.

My advice is, if you need it: pick your battles, and if something isn’t fun anymore, bin it, but if it is, don’t give up and have a laugh with it. Then wait for the endorphin-rush: get to the end, watch the cut-scene, stroke your Pogs, whip out your full Panini sticker book on the bus and very obnoxiously flip through every single completed page so that everyone around can see you’re a big boy. You’ve done it, you’re the king of the castle, and nobody can take that away from you. 

Anyone else, good luck with Game of Thrones - that thing’s never gonna end.

(Images: @gogdenart/Getty)