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Easy Procrastination Avoidance Advice

My mother gave me the cure for procrastination when I was 6, and I could not start my homework. She encouraged me to ‘just start it’ (her exact words were, ‘just sit down’, I believe).

Today, I came across proof from the field of psychology that she was right!

Let’s go back a few years to the late 60s.

A prominent Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik , 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.

Those who dable in cognitive sciences (like me for example!) refer to this phenomenon as ‘closure’. Closure effectively flushes your short-term memory. This is why early ATMs used to cause people to ‘forget their cash cards’; once people got their money, they walked away (without their card) as their ‘task’ (i.e. get the cash) is now complete. It wasn’t the people’s fault (they beat themselves up for forgetting their card!), but the designer’s fault for not being aware of this closure phenomenon. This is why nowadays, the ATM gives you the card, and refuses to give you the cash until you have taken the offered card.

So… the answer to procrastination is.. (wait for it !) …being in a state without closure. The easiest way to get there is to start something, as by definition, until it is complete you are not in a state of closure!

Zeigarnik proved this in the lab. She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927).All standard stuff.. EXCEPT that  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.

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 starting. It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start. Figure out one piece that is mandatory for the final solution, and start chipping away, and before you know it, it’s all done.

Zeigarnik’s gift to us is the lesson that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere. Carpe Diem. Get back to work now! :-)

  1. February 8th, 2011 at 22:06 | #1

    Seems like Nike (Just do it!) had it right too minus child labor ofcourse!

    Great post, I have used that to be sure I never skip the gym, everytime I have an excuse, I just convince myself to show up to the gym, once I am there I get in state and it gets done.

    However, this might not work so well for tasks that are inherently complicated or difficult. Seems Zeigarnik’s experiments were based on tough situations. Something I have been excited about lately is entering flow states, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29 , and this might be a slight tangent from the topic at hand.

    Two great articles that would complement your post would be by Paul Graham that I found while trying to remedy procrastination :)

    Good Vs Bad Procrastination
    http://www.paulgraham.com/procrastination.html
    Makers Vs Managers schedule
    http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

  2. Carrie
    February 15th, 2011 at 14:54 | #2

    For an entirely different take, there may sometimes be an upside to procrastination(leave it to me to play devil’s advocate, and use social psych to back me up)

    “…a small subset of researchers propose that not all procrastination behaviors are harmful or lead to negative outcomes. In a 2005 study in The Journal of Social Psychology (Vol. 145, No. 3), Jin Nam Choi, PhD, a business professor at Seoul National University in South Korea, differentiated between two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators, who postpone tasks until the last minute because of an inability to act in a timely manner, and active procrastinators, who prefer the time pressure and purposely decide to delay a task but are still able to complete tasks before deadlines and achieve satisfactory outcomes. Choi and co-author Angela Hsin Chun Chu, a doctoral student at Columbia University, tested the 12-item scale they developed to distinguish the two procrastination types among a group of 230 undergraduates from three Canadian universities. They found that although active procrastinators reported the same level of procrastination as their traditional or passive counterparts, they demonstrated a productive use of time, adaptive coping styles and academic performance outcomes that were nearly identical to—and in some cases even better than—those of non-procrastinators.”

    Source: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2010/01/procrastination.aspx

    So apparently,if you’re an “active procrastinator”, you use the time pressure as a motivator, and may even perform better – at least that’s my excuse!!

  3. February 15th, 2011 at 15:28 | #3

    @carrie. You always come up with amazing references! :-)

    I should procrastinate more now… it’s an approach recommended by a professional psychologist :-) You’ve made the world a better place today.

    The article quoted by @kenan supports this hypothesis using empirical qualitative observation (i.e. opinions!). The absent-minded professor who pushes off doing their errands and taxes in order to get to the interesting work should excel eventually in their field.

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