So you’ve made your New Year’s Resolutions.
How do you avoid procrastination?
Dare to begin. That’s all there is to it.
I’m always impressed by waiters who don’t write anything down but still remember your order. Most of the time, anyway. Sho how do they do it?
Well, that’s a question that was on the lips of Russian Psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, and one that she was determined to answer with an in-depth experiment. Also on her lips for 28 consecutive nights was a selection of garlic breads and dough balls, plus a variety of pizzas and pasta dishes in rich béchamel sauce. The result?
She put on five stones in less than a month. In the end they had to knock down a wall and call an ambulance.
Okay, so I maybe embellished that story a little. However, what Bluma observed was that although the waiters could remember the entire order of every table when it was ‘live’, they somehow managed to erase this information from their brain as soon as the bill was paid and a new set of diners sat down. To prove this theory, and also to discover if it held true for people doing other tasks, she conducted a cunning experiment that didn’t involve eating any kind of fattening food at all.
Instead, she asked a number of willing participants to do twenty or so simple tasks such as solving puzzles and stringing beads. Some of the tasks they were allowed to complete in one go, whilst in others, they were interrupted before being allowed to continue. After completing all the tasks successfully they were then asked to recall as many of the different tasks as possible. As Bluma suspected, most people remembered about twice as many tasks where they had been interrupted, as they did those they had done in one go.
But what does this have to do with procrastination and how to be more successful in 2019? Well some years after Bluma had named her theory ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’ (in our house that’s code for putting on a lot of weight in a short amount of time) Kenneth McGraw and his colleagues carried out a further test. This time, participants were asked to do a really tricky puzzle. However, before any of them could solve it, they were told the study was over. Despite this instruction, about 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway.
Similarly, one of the oldest tricks for keeping viewers tuned in to a TV serial is the cliffhanger. You know the sort of thing, the hero falls off a mountain pass or is tied to a radiator in a burning building but before we can discover his fate the words “TO BE CONTINUED…” appear on screen and the credits roll. Literally a cliffhanger. A bit like the photograph – what happened next?! It’s the very same reason I tell more than one story at the same time when I’m speaking at conferences – it causes the brain to be ‘engaged.’
So here, finally, is the point.
When people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it. Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid. It may be that we don’t know how to start or even where to start. What the Zeigarnik effect teaches us is that to beat procrastination you just have to start somewhere.
Don’t start with the hardest bit this January, try something easy first. If you can just get a project underway then the rest will follow. Because once you’ve made a start, there’s something drawing you on to the end. And if you don’t finish it, it’ll niggle away in the back of your mind like an unresolved cliffhanger. Of course, none of this explains why my back bedroom is still only half decorated after two years. But at least I’ve made a start.
Do likewise. Dare to begin.
Blog by Philip Hesketh is a multiple award-winning professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and influence. He helps people improve their relationships, increase their sales and hold high prices. Guaranteed.