If you find it hard to take action as an entrepreneur and end up procrastinating, don’t worry, it’s not your fault! It could just be the Zeigarnik Effect!
As a coach/ mentor, one of my main skills has to be enabling people to create a plan and then take action. I’ve blogged about it many times and one of my main frustrations is when I spend time with people and, at the end of the call, they seem motivated, they have a step by step plan, but still… they just don’t take action.
I’ve been a bit mystified about this, but today, by accident, I came across something called The Zeigarnik Effect which may explain everything!
Bear with me while I trace the route to discovering this little gem, then I’ll share what it is – but more importantly, how it can help you. Help you stop procrastinating and get on with it.
You know that most of your fortune in business is in the pockets of people you already know or within a 25 mile radius of where you stand right now, right? Well, my friend Steve sent me to read an article on Ian Brodie’s blog about how to get in touch with old clients and contacts in a really cool way with the intention of turning them into new business. Reading it immediately gave me some great ideas for how he could do that and he’s putting those ideas into action right now.
Right at the end of the article Ian says “And if, like me, you’ve been following Richard Wiseman’s excellent psychology-based tips in his book 59 Seconds, you’ll know that the best way to beat procrastination and actually achieve something is to just get started and work on it for a few minutes (thus harnessing the Zeigarnik effect)”.
I was curious about both the book and the Zeigarnik Effect, which sounded a bit like time management coach Mark Forster’s excellent technique of “just get the file out” so I looked it up on Google and found a really great quote about how you are much more likely to remember and regret things you don’t do, than things you DO do.
However, rather ironically, I couldn’t complete my blog post then, so ended up losing the page with the great quote on it! Then I remembered about browsing history and, lo and behold, I found it again on the rather catchily entitled Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin website.
Regrets appear to follow a systematic temporal pattern: Regrettable commissions loom larger in the short term, whereas regrettable omissions are more prominent in the long run. This research examines whether this pattern can be attributed in part to the Zeigarnik effect, or peoples’ tendency to remember incompleted tasks better than completed tasks. Does Zeigarnik-like rumination over regrettable failures to act make them easier to recall, and thus more available as sources of regret? A survey found that people think about their biggest regrets of inaction more frequently than their biggest regrets of action. In two additional studies, participants listed their three biggest regrets of action and three biggest regrets of inaction, and then attempted to recall them several weeks later. As anticipated, participants remembered more of their regrettable omissions than their regrettable commissions, an effect that was maintained when the severity of the regrets was controlled statistically.
This ties up nicely with the “Top 5 Things Dying People Regret” which, apart from Number 2, seem to revolve around things people didn’t do, rather than things they did do.
When searching for that quote above, I came across David Kanigan’s blog “Lead Learn Live” where he talks about how the Zeigarnik Effect makes it difficult to get things done (and what to do about it):
I came to learn of the Ziegarnik Effect in PsyBlog. In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik conducted a study in a busy restaurant in Vienna where she found that waiters remembered uncompleted orders or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. This is described as the Zeigarnik Effect. In 1982, almost 60 years later, Kenneth McGraw conducted another study of the Zeigarnik Effect where the participants where asked to do a tricky puzzle; except they were interrupted before any of them could solve it – – and then they were told the study was over. Despite being asked to stop, nearly 90% kept working on the puzzle anyway. These incompleted tasks “rattle around in our heads,” distracting and interrupting us from being focused and getting important things done.
PsyBlog’s recommendations below are on point. I would suggest an alternative approach in one area. PsyBlog suggests that in order to eliminate unfinished tasks from being a distraction, you need to get specific about action plans on your tasks (what, when, how, where). I prefer David Allen’s strategy in “Getting Things Done.” If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear – – you will be distracted. You need to clear the noise. Get all of your tasks written down and out of your head. Have a system you trust to keep track of your tasks. And then ask yourself: “What’s the next action”. Then, take the next action to move the task forward – no matter how small it is. You’ll find that you’ll have more mental capacity to focus on what’s in front of you. Getting too specific about action plans can be overwhelming and will lead many of us to do nothing (to procrastinate). Outcome: we will continue to have “rocks” rattling around in our heads. Best to get started, gather momentum and then dive deeper into the planning process as you gather a head of steam.
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I was talking to a family member who does have challenges in procrastination and she says it’s all about the (negative) voice(s) in her head that taunts her with lists of things not completed in the past, with accusations of not being “good enough” etc.
I wonder whose voice those voices talk in, as when I was wealth coaching, a lot of negative head chatter around money, wealth, and rich people had a specific voice sound – someone you used to know who may not even be in your life any more. If you can identify the voice, you can recognise it and question whether you still want to be listening to that person!
In conclusion, then, if you want to stop procrastinating and succeed, you need to get things out of your head onto a list – but not a very detailed list – try “big picture” instead.
You might want to try just getting the file out and perhaps just tell yourself you’ll work on the job for a few minutes and see how it goes.
Don’t take on too many new things, and create a new and good habit of ONLY taking on things you know you’ll do easily – give yourself permission to abandon the rest. I was talking to the same family member yesterday who hadn’t finished a book (that I was waiting to read!) because she hadn’t done the suggested exercises. I said “give yourself permission to just read the bloody book already, without having to do the exercises!”
Anything you do take on, push through the pain of procrastination and make sure you actually complete tasks to create a virtuous circle of achievement and higher self esteem. Honestly, ticking things off your newly shortened list will give you a great feeling.
And you might want to take the Kolbe “A” Test online too – to find out your preferred method of taking action; what you will and won’t do etc. Highly recommended.