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How to Not Procrastinate: The Power of The Tiny First Step

in Personal Productivity

In the early 90’s when I was about 10 years old I was completely hooked on a TV series that had everything you can possibly need.

Action, drama, romance (a little bit), a cool car and sound effects that were spelled out in speech bubbles when someone got hit on the mouth or were thrown across the room.

You guessed it – I’m talking about but the 60s (super-awesome) tv series version of Läderlappen. Or Batman, as it’s called in English. The translation to Läderlappen never made any sense to me as it’s direct translation is The Leather Patch. But anyway.

What had me, and pretty much all of my friends, so completely hooked on this show was not so much the brilliant acting and jaw-dropping action scenes as you may expect. Not as much as…

The Cliffhanger

Each episode of Batman had a certain element of familiarity to it. Usually, Batman and Robin were summoned to Commissioner Gordon’s office via the Batphone after The Joker, The Penguin, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman, the Mad Hatter or some other evil-minded villain had been making a ruckus in Gotham City.

The initial discussion of the crime usually led to Batman and Robin conducting their investigation alone. Their investigation then typically lead to meeting with the villain, the heroes engaging in a fistfight with the villain’s henchmen resulting in an awesome cascade of POW! KA-BLAM! and SMATCH! (or something similar) happening all over the place.

In the midst of this fist swinging the villain would get away, leaving only a series of unlikely clues for Batman and Robin to investigate. Later on when they’d face the villain’s henchmen again the heroes would inevitably be captured and placed in an ingenious deathtrap with seemingly no way to escape.

Just when things were looking the most grim the show would end leaving you completely messed up in the head. How on Earth were Batman and Robin supposed to get out of this one? Would they? I mean of course they would. But still the suspense would be intolerable.

Leaving Things Unfinished is Uncomfortable

Way before Batman was on TV (in fact before TV) in 1927 the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters remembered orders only as long as the order was in the process of being served. When the serving was completed, the orders seemed to evaporate from their minds.

Zeigarnik decided to test what this was all about in her lab. She asked participants to do twenty-ish little tasks in the lab involving puzzle solving and stringing beads. Some of the time the participants would then be interrupted halfway through the task.

Afterwards she would ask them which activities they remembered doing. What Zeigarnik found was that people were about twice as likely to remember the tasks they’d been interrupted from than those they completed (1).

Almost sixty years later Kenneth McGraw and his colleagues carried out another test of what is now called The Zeigarnik Effect. In this one, the participants had to do a really difficult puzzle and were interrupted before any of them could solve it and told that the study was over. This didn’t stop 90% of the participants on working on the puzzle anyway (2).

How to Not Procrastinate

In my early twenties I used to dread household work and as a result my bachelor pad usually was so unorganized and dirty I didn’t know where to start cleaning it all up. Then I noticed that if I just started somewhere, anywhere, the momentum would build and I usually wouldn’t stop until the whole place was spotless.

This is The Zeigarnik Effect in action and it’s a very powerful tool in beating procrastination. It teaches us that if we have something we want to do but feel overwhelmed and/or tired all we have to do is take that first tiny step.

  • If you want to read a chapter, read one page.
  • If you want to exercise, put on your running shoes and go outside.
  • If you want to do the dishes, clean one plate.
  • If you want to write 500 words, type just 50 words.
  • If you want to meditate for 5 minutes, sit down and close your eyes for 30 seconds.

Most likely, you’ll notice how you’ll want to keep going once the first tiny step is completed. This is the Zeigarnik Effect in action.

Just like your brain wants to know how Batman and Robin escapes the trap or finish the serving before letting go of the orders, it will want to finish what you started.

The next time you’re procrastinating on something, take the first tiny step and let the momentum you build take care of the rest.

Funny side note: I had some serious Zeigarnik Effect going on as I wrote this article pushing way past my writing goals for the day. 🙂 Mark got it right:

”The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”
– Mark Twain (Tweet that)

  1. On Finished and Unfinished Tasks
  2. Undermining the Zeigarnik effect: Another hidden cost of reward

Image courtesy of Ambro / freedigitalphotos.net