Creating Effective Exercises With Sentence Completion — Part One

Sentence completion is an under-used tool for helping readers gain insight and change behavior. The trick is to structure these exercises for impact.

Start with an incomplete sentence (stem) that begs for completion. Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden — who’s written a lot about sentence completion — offers examples such as these:

  • To me, self-responsibility means…
  • When I look at what I do to impress people…
  • Sometimes I keep myself passive when I…
  • Sometimes I make myself helpless when I…
  • If I want to grow in independence, I will need to…
  • It is slowly and reluctantly dawning on me that…

When done well, sentence completion encourages people to bypass their internal censors and express pre-conscious thoughts and feelings. In addition, sentence completion can guide readers to go beyond vague intentions, planning for specific and concrete new behaviors.

To help readers get the most from sentence completion, suggest that they:

  • Copy the stems to a personal journal (paper-based or digital) to build a written record of their responses.
  • Write at least five endings for each stem.
  • Write down anything that comes to mind as long as the response completes the sentence in a grammatical way.
  • Write quickly without stopping to edit or rewrite.
  • Focus on a small block of stems each week, completing the same sentences each day.
  • Review their sentence completions on the weekend, look for themes and major insights, and consolidate them.
  • Follow up on the weekly review with this stem from Branden: If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I….

You can also use sentence completion in guiding readers to create implementation intentions. These are statements that pair an environmental cue with a specific planned behavior. For example:

When I get my paycheck, I will deposit 10 percent of it in my savings account.

The syntax for these sentences is:

When… I will….

Another option is creating sentences with the syntax of Tiny Habits. This is a strategy for behavior change based on the brilliant work of BJ Fogg at Stanford University. A Tiny Habit links an existing habit with a “baby step” — a new behavior that takes 30 seconds or less and requires no willpower whatsoever. For example:

After I walk in the door from work, I will hug my wife.

Here the syntax is:

After I… I will….

Branden describes daily sentence completion as “a kind of psychological discipline, a spiritual practice, even, that over time achieves insight, integration, and spontaneous behavior change.” That’s a big claim, and it’s worth testing.

To learn more about sentence completion, check out:
– Sentence Completion I: Instructions For Sentence Completion Programs by Nathaniel Branden
– Sentence Completion II: Instructions For Sentence Completion Programs by Nathaniel Branden
– The Art of Self-Discovery by Nathaniel Branden
– How to Use “Sentence Stems” to Solve Problems and Achieve Your Goals by Rich Schefren