Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Time Management Tuesday: The Zeigarnik Effect And Procrastination. Really?

It's not often that I come across something new and wonky related to time management. I stumbled on the Zeigarnik Effect while reading about productive people. The Zeigarnik Effect is supposed to help them. I suppose whether they actually know about it or not.

This is a cool story. A Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, noticed while she was in a restaurant that waiters could remember orders that hadn't been fill yet but forgot them once they had been. Zeigarnik did a series of experiments and "concluded that the “recall-value” of unfinished tasks is high because it’s human nature to complete a task we’ve already started."

Sounds Like A Story

Personally, I wonder if the concept of "story" is a factor here. Story is a huge presence in our lives, and we desire to see a story completed. If you think of a "task" as a "story," an uncompleted task becomes an unfinished story. The person who hasn't completed the task is left hanging. In fact, TV cliffhangers and Charles Dickens' serial writing have been described as examples of the Zeigarnik Effect at work. The viewer/reader must come back for more, because the story isn't done.

What Does This Have To Do With Managing Our Time?

Supposedly the Zeigarnik Effect can help procrastinators because once they make themselves start a project, they're likely to finish it. The Zeigarnik Effect makes it difficult for you to let go of something you've started. "Knowing that your brain will nag you to complete it should make it easier to dive in."

I have my doubts about that. If the Zeigarnik Effect worked all that well, there wouldn't be hard drives and filing cabinets filled with unfinished manuscripts, basements and spare bedrooms  wouldn't be filled with unfinished craft and DIY projects, and there would be none of those weird half-finished bridges and highways to nowhere. I wonder if the Zeigarnik Effect isn't more of a factor with shorter- term tasks--like filling a meal order--then long-term ones that could take weeks, months, or years to complete--like writing a book.

What's more, the Zeigarnik Effect may be more about memory than it is about procrastination or managing time. A later study also suggests that motivation plays a hand in how well the Zeigarnik Effect works.

However, if you want to see if the Zeigarnik Effect has an impact on your work or is something that could have an impact on your work, consider the following:

  • How are you about completing your shorter tasks? Personally, I'll go into contortions to finish a blog post. I'm also obsessed with the CCLC. This may be the Zeigarnik Effect at work. Keep ZE in mind when you need to get started on something short. Starting it may very well mean that you have to finish.
  • Some proponents of the Zeigarnik Effect suggest using what I call the Unit System to break your work time up into small units. Presumably each unit of time becomes a task which, once begun, you will feel you have to finish. As you knock off more and more units, you get more and more deeply into the larger task. Theoretically, at some point your mind sees the big task as the uncompleted task and will want to keep going.
  • Warning: Remember completion bias "our natural tendency to focus too much on tasks that are easy to complete -- often at the expense of the tasks that are more important?" Be careful to make sure that the Zeigarnik Effect doesn't work together with completion bias to keep you focused on short tasks that you can complete and get off your mind to the detriment of the big jobs.
This little job is now done. I really need to go back to work on the big one.


Katie L. Carroll said...

This is fascinating! Great post!

Gail Gauthier said...

Years and years ago, I worked for an office that did management development and personnel management consulting. I hated the job, but it left me with an interest in management concepts.

There's a feeling that writing is art, and authors are artists. But the actual writing is work. Work is work, and skills that apply to one kind of work can often be applied or adapted to another.