Imagine you are a participant in a research study. You’re asked to solve a challenging puzzle and given an unlimited amount of time to finish. You dig in and really get your wheels rolling when suddenly a researcher steps in and interrupts your progress. They tell you they have all the data they need and the testing is over. Problem is… your brain is still wrapped around the puzzle. Could you get your mind off the puzzle?
Not if you were part of the majority of participants in a study published by University of Mississippi’s Kenneth McGraw. Volunteers were asked to solve a complex puzzle but had no idea the actual test was to measure their reactions when asked to stop midstream. The fact is, nearly 90% of the participants continued working on the assignment despite being told they were finished. An incomplete task leaves the brain hanging and the suspense drives us to finish.
Interestingly, studies show when you are interrupted not only do you want to keep going but you also remember details of unfinished tasks better than finished ones. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect –the proven idea that once you start something, the reward system in your brain works to carry it out until the end. If interrupted, your brain continues to think about the suspended details giving you that edgy, “it’s driving me crazy” kind of feeling so you’ll return to what you started.
By the way, this “effect” is also what media writers and fiction authors purposely count on to get you to turn the page, purchase the next novel in the series, tune into the next TV episode or ensure a blockbuster for the next movie in a sequel. They get you wrapped up in a story, straining towards a climax and suddenly suspend the action with a powerful cliffhanger knowing it will be unbearable for you until to reach closure.
But what do cliffhangers have to do with procrastination?
Your brain has an amazing ability to envision a project… that’s the good news. The bad news is this same ability also triggers a dreaded procrastination response when you foresee difficulties, workload increases and potential problems. In case you haven’t noticed, we humans have a tendency to become overwhelmed by imagined complications and worries before we even begin; many of which never come to pass or are grossly inflated. As a result, we procrastinate and start doing other things. We may even look for an escape hatch to avoid the starting blocks altogether. But what if you could trigger a different response? The truth is you can!
If you want to beat procrastination… just get started. No really. That’s the key. You don’t even have to know where to begin. Just start somewhere. Once you start your brain engages the cliffhanger effect to reach a conclusion which naturally carries you over the first hurdle and on towards the finish line. Like a great novel or movie, once you start; your brain can’t wait to see how it all ends.
Try it! I did. While in the middle of researching and writing this very post my husband interrupted to tell me he had car issues and needed a ride to work. This forced me to suspend my work and jump in the car. Could I let it go? Well, let’s just say Jim is now an expert on avoiding procrastination. I even stayed in the car to make more notes on the back of scrap paper when he stopped for coffee.