Image credit: Hasim Ramle / Shutterstock.com
Midweek, midday: I’m sitting at my Pemberly Row Unfinished Natural Wood study table, to-do lists piled on the right side of my desk, an unfinished cup of tea on the left, and, in between, a laptop screen with nine open tabs and the text cursor blinking on the last word I typed. Behind me, actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s memoir, Unfinished, is lying open to page 43 on my unmade bed.
As I get up to check my phone (still charging), I hear the chime of a notification from DoorDash. You have some unfinished business to deal with! Complete your order with the last step and get your groceries delivered at your doorstep now.
I feel surrounded: Why is everything around me incomplete?
Lifelong fretting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Zeigarnik effect, named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, is the psychological finding that people have better memory of unfinished tasks than completed ones. Interrupting my reading with grocery runs, for instance, may actually help me remember my book better. Zeigarnik also found that people who expressed high levels of ambition were more likely to remember unfinished tasks than those who have average levels of ambition. The possibility that my endless to-do lists are a form of ambition and memory-banking fills me with a happy sense of resolution.
Then I open a new tab and type: Is perfectionism a Virgo thing?
Dependent clauses; messy buns; Goku’s Ultra Instinct Sign incomplete form in the Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 video game; loose hems; half-eaten packets of tortilla chips resealed with airtight clips; my school lunchbox on Wednesdays, when my mother would pack the awful bharta I refused to eat; my prediabetic father’s insistence that no meal is complete without dessert.
As a child I was told to finish the tall glass of milk, my meals, and my homework. I never felt “in the middle of something.” Now I’m 21 and in the middle of everything. The life expectancy of an average Indian woman is 69, so I roughly have 45 unfinished years ahead: beautiful years. If I can use that time to realize my dreams, will I feel as complete as I once did finishing a full glass of milk?
A recent U.K. study reported individuals in my age bracket spending an average of around 5 hours a day scrolling social media; one in 10 people of those of us aged between 16 and 24 spend seven hours a day—or 2,555 hours a year—on Instagram alone. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Reddit, and TikTok invite a sense of incompletion: scrolling is by design always “unfinished.”
The cup of tea sitting on my desk is cold. I should get up and make another.
Before its termination in October 2022, the fashion collaboration Yeezy was renowned for the “unfinished” aesthetic of its footwear: the brand reported a net profit of $1.5 billion in 2021. The men’s leather flats in the Spring 2020 collection Dries Van Noten, meanwhile, featured a soft skin and an almost naive finish that gave them the appearance of being the practice shoe for an experimental dance. A comparable design by Jil Sander resembles a glove or sock-like second skin that hugs the foot tightly, like a ballerina flat without any style points. When deliberate, the appearance of incompleteness is not only chic, but profitable.
Making a second cup of tea alters my immediate list of unfinished business. I can mentally cross drinking the first cup of tea from my list and replace it with the new cup. I can add my regular $22 Chamberlain Matcha tea to my shopping list, plus the Terrazzo Tumbler with free ice tray, which will make my order worth more than $50: it’ll be shipped free of cost while my tea cools. (A phenomenon related to the Zeigarnik effect can also be observed in online shopping, with interruptions prompting consumers to make purchasing decisions that prioritize desire over data.)
The American nonprofit Project Semicolon is known for its advocacy of mental health wellness and its anti-suicide initiative. A semicolon usually denotes a moment when an author could’ve finished their sentence, but instead decided to extend it with another clause. For Project Semicolon, “semicolon” refers to those courageous people who thought of committing suicide and chose not to. Thinking about the semicolon in this way helps me accept the “unfinished” as part of what it means to be alive.
It also reminds me that my mother never finishes her high-end perfume bottles; instead, she leaves a few drops in them and overcrowds her dressing table. When I ask her to rationalize the hoarding, she says she likes the lush aesthetic: “The miser in me wants to justify all the money I’ve spent on them by displaying them on my table … and I like looking at these labels.” The crowd of unfinished bottles gives my mother—who practices meditation daily and ironically is always asking me to “let go!”—a sense of completion.
In Zen Buddhism, the form of the ensō—a circle hand-painted in a single brushstroke, usually on black ink on white paper—can be understood to depict both being and nothingness. The ensō form represents enlightenment; the circle may be closed or open, complete or incomplete. Philosophies like these give a reason for Virgos like me to not be so hard on themselves and embrace the imperfections, slow down and enjoy the now of a single breath.
Meditation: I book my slot to the free class that happens every Sunday at Pier 17, star the invite email, and add it to my to-do list.
Unfinished architectural landmarks attract tourists from around the world; we still call them monuments, using our imaginations to fill in the gaps. The unfinished “Initiation Wells” of Quinta de Regaleira, Portugal, consist of a twisting tower and staircase spiraling 27 meters deep into the earth. The Tower of Hassān, a beautiful unfinished mosque, has dominated the skyline of Rabat, Morocco, since the twelfth century. If completed, the Palace of the Soviets would have been the tallest structure in the world. Instead, it became an open-air swimming pool.
Instead of a meditation pose and calming breaths: Doritos, 17 emails marked “urgent,” a phone constantly buzzing. This is not, in fact, an image of me at my desk, but from the opening of Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s memoir, the book still lying on my bed. I wonder if Chopra Jonas, who was crowned Miss India World in 2000 and went on to become a multi-award-winning actor and producer, uses a clip to seal her Doritos shut, if she leaves the bag unfinished.
The South Indian film Bahubali: The Beginning opened to record-shattering numbers, clearing $22 million in its domestic debut and nearly $34 million in its first five days of international release. Inspired by Indian epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, Bahubali is the story of a fearless man driven by extraordinary forces in search of an elusive goal: after two hours and 39 minutes, including a 45-minute battle sequence, a cliffhanger ending left audiences desperate with unanswered questions. The unfinished saga quickly broke Indian film industry records, becoming the highest-grossing film in Hindi as well as in its original Telugu and Tamil languages.
Unfinished pizza lingers in my fridge. Shahi paneer sabzi, soups, and casseroles are often better the next day too. More New Yorkers are recognizing that other “unfinished” food has value: using the application Too Good To Go, customers can purchase surplus unsold food from more than 750 restaurants at discounted prices as low as $6.00.
A song loops my head. “Now I’ve got you on my mind,” Noah Cyrus sings: “And I’m wonderin’ tonight / If we could’ve been more / But we were left unfinished.” It strikes me that the relationships we obsess over are the ones we think of as incomplete. The Zeigarnik effect impacts our perception of closure and makes it tough to walk away from open-ended situations. Sad love songs are some of my favorite music.
Now the term “unfinished” gives me a sense of hope and excitement. The party isn’t over; the movie’s plot twist could come any moment. An unfinished bottle of wine is an excuse to talk a little longer on your first date; at the end of the day there’s still hope that someone will text asking how you are; the song isn’t over and your favorite line is yet to come. When it’s still raining and you have time to get yourself some hot chocolate. When you’re one stop away and make eye contact with that stranger one last time; when your perfume has few sprays left on your dresser; when you place your fork and knife in the center of your plate with the tips facing each other in an inverted V (slightly angled), because the food is delicious and you’re not finished eating yet.
Palak Godara is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research