If you are like me you struggle with procrastination. If you need to regrout the tub or rake the front yard, the only time it ever gets done is when you have a looming deadline for a big project or, if you are in school, you have a big paper due. Everybody it seems has this problem though academics seem to be the worst procrastinators. One philosopher has even written a book on the subject.
Since procrastination effects so many of us, everybody and their brother has come up with a theory and a solution to solve this plague. One of the simplest, and hence one of the best, techniques for overcoming procrastination is the Zeigarnik Effect. Jeremy Dean at PsyBlog has a good run down on the Zeigarnik Effect and how you can use it to your advantage. Dean writes
One of the simplest methods for beating procrastination in almost any task was inspired by busy waiters.
It’s called the Zeigarnik effect after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik (above left), who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.
Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on. She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927). Except some of the time they were interrupted half way through the task. Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing. People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed.
What does this have to do with procrastination you may ask? To explain why Dean points to an old TV trick – the Cliffhanger.
Here’s another clue: one of the oldest tricks in the TV business for keeping viewers tuned in to a serial week after week is the cliffhanger. The hero seems to have fallen off a mountain but the shot cuts away before you can be sure. And then those fateful words: “TO BE CONTINUED…” Literally a cliffhanger.
You tune in next week for the resolution because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.
The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same technique. Many of his works, like Oliver Twist, although later published as complete novels, were originally serialised.
His cliffhangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that his American readership would wait at New York docks for the latest instalment to arrive by ship from Britain. They were that desperate to find out what happened next.
The real truth behind the Zeigarnik Effect is that once we start something we are inclined to finish it. it is as simple as that. If you have a big project or a paper due the best thing you can do is to do something, anything. Once you get going you will probably begin to enjoy it. As Dean writes
What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.
Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end. It will niggle away in the back of your mind like a Lost cliffhanger.
Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our projects. The sense of foreboding can be a big contributor to procrastination.