When a person has embarked on an undertaking that is both unpleasant and important (a good example could be a 12 step drug treatment program), lets say they make progress, and then stall before completion.

Is the the person significantly less likely to be successful as a result of the break in their momentum?

  • $\begingroup$ Frankel, Z., & Levitt, H. M. (2009). Clients' experiences of disengaged moments in psychotherapy: A Grounded Theory analysis. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 39, 171-186. doi:10.1007/s10879-008-9087-z $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jan 8, 2014 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ Stringer, J. v., Levitt, H. M., Berman, J. S., & Mathews, S. S. (2010). A study of silent disengagement and distressing emotion in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 20, 495-510. doi:10.1080/10503301003754515 "Results indicated that disengagement [silences that reflect processes of client disengagement (e.g., withdrawal, resistance)] predicted poorer proximal and distal outcome as measured by the Beck Depression Inventory for Primary Care (BDI-PC) and poorer proximal outcome on the Symptom Checklist-5, but it was not significantly predictive of Outcome Questionnaire-45 scores." $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jan 8, 2014 at 19:32

3 Answers 3


Here are some thoughts on potentially important moderating factors for any such basic effect:

  • Whether stalling is voluntary
  • Whether there are social or environmental reasons for stalling
  • How long one stalls
  • Whether one has made a complete break from the undertaking
    • Whether one turns in the meantime to related matters that might facilitate or conflict with it

I'm not implying you have to narrow your question down to get a general answer, but the general answer might not be a noticeably influential factor in specific subsets of the general question. For instance, going to sleep before trying to finish something one has been working on all day might replenish momentum the next day; this is a short, voluntary stall that probably addresses a particular reason for stalling (e.g., fatigue, or maybe needing daylight or businesses to be open to make progress), and people consolidate experiences and replenish energy resources during sleep, so sleep is a facilitating matter to turn to in the meantime.

In contrast, stalling for months because of setbacks in one's personal life might better represent the kind of scenario you have in mind that would more likely prove detrimental. For example, say you're working on a research project, but happen to be living in an apartment you share with a crazy roommate. If your roommate suddenly becomes so disruptive that you have to find new housing, negotiate a breach of your lease, move out, and settle in to your new spot before you can get back to work a couple months later, your new rate of progress might be slower at first than when you left off. This stall is essentially involuntary, due to disruptive social influences in one's environment, long enough to potentially result in forgetting some aspects of how you were doing your work (which could require refamiliarizing with even your own organizational structure! My former advisor warned me about keeping detailed notes for this reason), and it's a complex enough reason to stall in the meantime that you might stop thinking about your research entirely, and have to focus on something completely unrelated...Then again, the result still might facilitate your rate of progress if your research was being hampered by living with that crazy roommate, and your new roommates aren't equally crazy. (Based on a true story! :)

I suppose the implications for your question are that moderating factors like these may overwhelm any basic, duration-independent effect of stalling. Again, this is not to say the basic effect hasn't been studied, much less that it can't be...but my recent dissertation was on goal progress, and I haven't yet come across any sufficiently sophisticated research to address your basic issue, whereas there's plenty of research out there on relationships between progress and goal characteristics like environmental support and goal conflict, including a little bit of my own research. That being said, I'd love to see any research others might be able to contribute to this discussion, as I do find the basic issue interesting!


Psychotherapy and all other behavior modification programs work on a voluntary basis. Admittedly someone may initially not want to participate but after the initial period they should want to modify their behavior. If this key change does not occur then they will not benefit from slugging through hours and hours. Things like court imposed therapy do not have as great an impact as voluntary therapy. This same principle applies to many forms of rehab. In recent years the total number of days after detox from drug rehabilitation has dropped from a month to a couple of weeks because for most people it is equally effective.


Avoidance Learning occurs when someone faces an unpleasant stimulus (say, a 12-step), and is rewarded by the sense of relief they get from successfully getting away. Of all sorts of behavioral learning (eg learning behaviors via reward and punishment), avoidance learning can take exceptionally deep hold because there is never an opportunity to feel rewarded for successful completion or get a realistic sense of what the outcome would be if not (habitually) avoided. You can't easily unlearn the habit of avoiding. From that standpoint, quitting halfway through is avoiding the outcomes of continuing or finishing. Every time you avoid what you predict to be an unpleasant outcome, you become more likely to avoid in the future. So, all other things being equal, avoidance becomes a habit and if you are quitting something to avoid it, if you start again you'll be more likely to quit again, having already reinforced the avoidance habit.


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