This one mind trick will keep you going: How Understanding Psychology Can Combat Procrastination

Each year, when I have to do my taxes, I do anything but my taxes. I clean the house, organise my office... you get the idea. It is insane. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember.

This year was different! I had read the book How to Take Smart Notes by Soenke Ahrens and stumbled upon a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect. It felt like I found the secret to stopping me from procrastinating!

This year, I did my taxes within a day. All I had to do was exploit this phenomenon.

Today I want to share with you what I found out, how I implemented it, and how you can use it as well.

The Zeigarnik Effect: How Unfinished Tasks Dominate Our Minds

Named after Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the effect happens when a task is interrupted. It leads to it being more easily recalled later. We tend to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

Like an open loop, it lingers in our minds.

Have you ever gone to sleep and not written down the tasks for tomorrow? Then you lie in bed thinking about it, tossing and turning?

Software companies use this to their advantage. Think of gamification strategies like progress trackers, levels in a game, or checklists.

Turn Mental Tension into Motivation: Strategies to Leverage the Zeigarnik Effect

In my pursuit to get my taxes done, I told myself I would only spend 5 minutes on it and then do something else.

In this short time, all I was able to do was list all the tasks I needed to get done in my bullet journal.

It read something like this:

  • find all payslips and put them in the ‘tax folder’
  • collect all invoices
  • fill out a tax checklist

You get the idea. All small tasks led to the next.

I told myself I could do 5 minutes. I set a timer and did the task. Once the timer stopped, I interrupted what I was doing and did something else. I grabbed a coffee and played with my cat.

However, I was a little bit restless. I only had two more payslips to file... and so I went back to do another 5 minutes.

It ended with me doing it all in one day. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the next thing and wanted to cross it off the list.

Practical Applications in Daily Life: How to Integrate the Zeigarnik Effect into Your Routine for Enhanced Productivity

These days, I use the Zeigarnik effect in different ways.

First I use it to help me get things done.

This follows a similar approach as above, although there is hardly ever something as annoying as doing taxes.

If I struggle with motivation and can smell procrastination around the corner, I break things down into 25-minute pomodoro sessions. This helps me get through this type of work. I stop when the timer goes off and start again after a short break. Having an open loop helps me want to get back to it and finish it.

Another way I leverage the Zeigarnik effect is to help me figure things out.

When I face a challenge with no clear answer, I keep it in my memory or mind. I will go back and think about it over and over again, and usually, after a while, figure it out!

Keep in mind (no pun intended) that this will only work for a small amount of ‘things’ if your mind is clear to begin with. Daily journaling and writing everything down help with this.

Your Action Items:

  1. Start with Small Tasks: Initiate projects with manageable steps to create a mental urge for completion.
  2. Take intentional breaks: Pause mid-task to activate the Zeigarnik Effect and boost your desire to finish.
  3. Maintain a Task List: Keep a visible list of ongoing tasks to constantly remind your brain of unfinished work.

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Last Update: December 04, 2023