Why The Zeigarnik Effect Can Help You Beat Procrastination

Waiters working in a coffee shop

Do you procrastinate a lot? Do you find it difficult to get yourself to work on a task? If yes, you should learn about the Zeigarnik Effect.

Zeigar-what? 

Zeigarnik Effect. It takes its name after the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, and it will help you fight (and possibly defeat) procrastination.

So what is it? Let’s find out.

Waiters Have a Good (and at the Same Time Bad) Memory

Once upon a time (during the 1920s), psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in a restaurant, when she noticed something interesting about the waiters. Some people say that the one observing the waiters was actually her professor, but that’s not the point. 

The point is that they noticed how waiters were able to remember the unpaid orders perfectly, but could recall almost nothing about them once those very orders were completed and paid for.

So, Zeigarnik decided to conduct some experiments.

She asked her participants to work on some simple activities, such as solving puzzles, and, during the experiment, she would often interrupt them while they were working on their tasks. At the end of the experiment, the results showed that participants could remember the interrupted and uncompleted tasks much better than the ones they had actually completed from start to finish, without any interruption.

“Interesting, but does this have anything to do with overcoming procrastination?”

Yes it does, and we’re about to see why.

“To Be Continued…” The Zeigarnik Effect Isn’t Anything New

Just like with Parkinson’s Law, you have definitely already experienced (and still experience) the Zeigarnik Effect on a daily basis.

Take TV series, for example.

You’re watching an episode of your favorite TV show, the plot is reaching an extremely interesting point and… the episode ends.

It feels good, right? No, of course it doesn’t. Ending on a cliffhanger generates a feeling of unfulfilled curiosity which, “thanks” to the Zeigarnik Effect, makes you crave for the next episode. This is exactly how some people feel compelled to binge-watch waaaay too many episodes in a single day. They can’t focus on other things as long as they want to know what happens next in their favourite TV show.

I hope you can see it now, the reason why the Zeigarnik Effect can help you beat procrastination.

How to Use the Zeigarnik Effect to Your Advantage

Start.

“What? Did you really take so much of my time just to tell me to START?”

Well, yes. Because the simple act of starting is really the most important “technique” for beating procrastination and becoming more productive.

By showing you the Zeigarnik Effect, I wanted to make you understand how powerful starting is, and how taking the first step means that you are already halfway through. 

Usually, we tend to procrastinate because some tasks are too difficult or too boring, so we just waste time waiting for an improbable surge of motivation and willpower. 

The Zeigarnik Effect, on the contrary, tells us that all we need to do is to just start and that it (the Z.E.) will take care of generating momentum for us, thus allowing us to keep working, even though we didn’t feel like doing it at first.

So your key takeaway from today’s post is:

Just start. The Zeigarnik Effect will take care of the rest.

PS: Watch Out for the Dark Side of the Zeigarnik Effect!

We’ve seen that you can use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage and achieve more, but there’s also a “dark side” to this: it works the other way around, too.

This means that if you get distracted while you’re working, your brain will keep thinking about that distraction unless you get rid of it. Even if you do complete it, it will take your brain up to 20 minutes before it’s able to focus again.

So if you’re studying for an exam, for example, and you suddenly receive a notification on your smartphone, you won’t be able to go back and study with intense focus again unless you do something about that notification.

So what can you do about distractions? Especially considering how unpredictable they can be? 

I can give you three strategies:

  1. Use the Pomodoro Technique, as it will force you to work for a set amount of time, during which it won’t allow any distraction.
  2. Do something about your smartphone. Silence it, put it on airplane mode, put it in another room. Whatever you choose, make sure you don’t get distracted by your phone when you’re working/studying.
    (For more tips on how to stop using your smartphone too much, click here)
  3. Make a plan. To avoid the Zeigarnik Effect, you don’t have to complete an activity 100%. Simply planning a time to do it will “close the loop”. Schedule a specific time of the day during which you will allow yourself to get distracted as much as you want. If a distraction comes up while you are working, and if it isn’t anything really urgent and important, procrastinate it until it’s “distraction-time”. At least, postpone it until the end of your current work session. 

All right, now there’s only one thing left for you to do:

Start.

It doesn’t matter how little motivation you feel, how difficult the task is, or how long it is going to take. If you manage to get started (perhaps by using the No-Thinking Technique to make it easier), the Zeigarnik Effect will help you beat procrastination and laziness.

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