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!