Procrastinators Anonymous

Written by Anupriya Jain under Dr. Anu Goel for

Published on

Procrastination is the tendency to put off tasks until tomorrow, or practically speaking maybe an eternity. So, if you have a to-do list taller than your own self, sticky notes more than clothes in your wardrobe, and your mother constantly screams at you – reminding you important stuff, then you have the perfect symptoms of a procrastinator

Almost everyone will agree that procrastination is a problem as irritating and sticky as weight loss – you know you have to lose it, you want to lose it but you’re too lazy to lose it. Then what must one sincerely hope to improve? A frantic search on the Internet provided evidence that psychology helps find the answer.

In 1927, while dining in a busy restaurant in Vienna, a Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed a peculiar phenomenon. She noticed that the waiters seemed to remember only those orders that were in the process of being served. When they were completed, they evaporated from their memory. She went back to her laboratory and conducted a series of tests in which the participants were asked to perform numerous but simple tasks such as solving puzzles, and stringing beads. They were interrupted and stopped between some of the tasks performed, while some remained uninterrupted. Later, when the participants were asked which tasks they remembered having performed; they were twice as likely to remember the tasks in which they were interrupted than those which they had been allowed to complete. She called this the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’.
In 1982, Kenneth McGraw drew from this study and conducted another experiment in which the participants were asked to solve a really tricky puzzle. Before any of them could complete it, they were told that the experiment was over and were asked to stop. As per the observations, 90% of the participants continued to solve the puzzle despite being informed that the time had elapsed, and the experiment was over.

What both these studies aim to imply is that once you start something or when something is in progress, our mind tends to pay more attention to it. When the waiters are yet to serve the orders, they keep hovering in their consciousness. The participants of Bluma’s and Kenneth’s study were in the middle of solving a puzzle when they were asked to stop. Since the mind had already taken up a task and was working on it, it refused to stop. Therefore, the participants were still thinking about the tasks when the experiments had ended. And that is why they remembered uncompleted tasks better in the first study and refused to stop until the puzzle was solved in the latter.

Applying it to the poisonous habit, we observe that the list of ‘pending’ tasks keeps getting elongated because we refuse to START. And that’s where the key lies – to just begin working on the task without worrying about completing it. Application of the studies’ conclusion suggests that as soon as you just take the first step towards doing it, you won’t be able to put it down until you have completed it due to a natural tendency of your brain. And this may well apply to the whole list.

For instance, if you begin a particular project, your mind records a statement ‘I started Project A’. Now, there are two roads to which you could get inclined:1. You complete the project
2. You don’t complete the project

If the 1st road, well, good enough! But if you happen to move to the 2nd road (what most procrastinators would tend to do even though they have started the project) the mind would record another statement “I didn’t complete Project A’. This will lead to a case of Cognitive Dissonance in which you have two dichotomous statements:

“I started Project A”
“I didn’t’ complete Project A”

To achieve equilibrium, your mind will push you towards completing the assigned task, which is
what you will end up doing. Success! An idle mind can think up of a 1000 excuses to remain idle, and we surrender to it. The trick is to jolt that mind by just gathering a bit of incentive, and taking the first step. Eventually, the irritated mind will itself lead you further without any effort.



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