How to reduce Procrastination – The Zeigarnik Effect

A recent study showed that 24% of the population believe themselves to be chronic procrastinators. Now procrastination is a surprisingly complex field, with many root causes, such as Fear of failure, Perfectionism, low levels of self-control, inability to break down projects in to bite-sized chunks, a low boredom threshold etc. An analysis of the underlying drivers of procrastination would almost certainly be of benefit to any individual, but this is a very personal thing. One thing we can all consider is the Zeigarnik effect.

In 1927, Zeigarnik was a young Russian psychology graduate who noticed that waiters in a local restaurant were able to recall with near perfection exactly what each of the customers at a table had ordered, when asked to do so before the bill was presented. When asked to perform the same feat of memory after the bill had been settled however, they struggled (and generally failed) to do so.

Zeigarnik took this insight in to the research laboratory and quickly concluded that brain associated a sense of unease and with “unfinished business” and that it seemed to wipe this sense of unease and indeed the information held along with it upon closure of the task.

We can make use of the Zeigarnik effect in two important ways. Firstly, if you want to overcome procrastination and get something done, then just spend a few minutes starting the task. Your brain will naturally encourage you to return to the task and to get it finished. This “just a few minutes” technique is astonishingly powerful.

Secondly, modern life, and in particular the ubiquitous nature of email these days means that at any given moment we have dozens if not hundreds of unfinished tasks on the go (often neatly measured by how many hundreds of emails you have in your inbox!) The more you can adapt the ways in which you and your colleagues work to address this overload, then the less your brain will be stressed by the Zeigarnik effect. The less stressed it is, the better you will perform and the more you will get done, setting up something of a virtuous circle, rather than the vicious one we tend to be presented with if left unchecked. Remember your brain only has 20 Watts to play with. The more you can strike off the brain’s “mulling over list” the better.


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