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How the Zeigarnik Effect can help you battle procrastination

We all have those tasks on our to do list that we just can set ourselves to do. Sometimes it’s because we don’t like doing this (for me, making phone calls is a biggie since for some reason I really dislike calling people), sometimes it’s because the task is so big we just don’t know where to start or it may be that we wonder how we’re ever going to finish it.

Whatever the task is that you dread doing, chances are it will results in big time procrastination. So how do you get yourself to do the things you dread, especially if they are bigger tasks that require more time?

The solution is as simple as can be: just start. If you just take that first step, the rest won’t be as hard.

Believe me, I realize how stupid this sounds, but hear me out. In psychology, there’s a phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik effect, named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who first studied it. She noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders and did further research. The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

It seems that as humans, we are designed for closure, we have a built-in desire to finish what we have started. If we don’t finish a task we’ve started, we experience dissonance and we keep thinking about that task.

I know this from experience, a very simple example is for instance my RSS Reader. I can tell myself to only read for 15 minutes, but if my feed isn’t ‘empty’ by then, I’ll keep thinking about wanting some more time to read and finish it. It’s more effective to mark everything as read, because then it feels like a completed task and I can let it go.

This Zeigarnik effect is something you can use to your advantage:

1. Just start a dreaded task

The first thing we can learn from this psychological phenomenon is that it can pay off to just start a task, even if we dread it or don’t know where to start. The simple action of starting it, will motivate us to keep working until we’ve finished it.

zeigarnik effect

2. Finishing tasks relieves stress

The other side of this phenomenon is that you can relieve your stress by finishing what you’ve already started before starting on a new task. A focused approach on one task at a time is much more productive that doing several things at once, since your brain will keep track of all these unfinished tasks. Another proof that we’re not nearly as good at multitasking as we often think!

3. Take breaks if you want to remember

Another way you can use this effect to your advantage is by taking deliberate breaks in tasks you want to remember. Take sermon prep for instance. Even before I’d ever heard of this effect, I never wrote a sermon in one day. I would start with reading the text and then doing study about it and then I would let it rest. Then I would write a first draft and let it rest again. Only then would I finish it. All that time (usually this was about a week, maybe two at the most) I would think about my sermon in the back of my head. By the time it was done, I usually had it pretty much committed to memory and I felt I knew the ‘material’ well.

One last thing. Research also seems to suggest that the level of motivation for the task matters in how strong the Zeigarnik effect is. If you’re not motivated for a task at all, then it will be much weaker as when you realize its importance. That means that for some dreaded tasks, you may need to deliberately keep yourself motivated in whatever way possible. But that’s something we may have to discuss further in a future blog post (and if you want to read more ideas and tips on how to work smarter and manage your time better, check out our Time Management in Youth Ministry Series!)

How good are you at starting tasks you dread? Does knowing about this Zeigarnik effect help you to start things you’ve been procrastinating?

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