Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, March 2, 2012

To Curb Procrastination, Close Some Windows

In reading Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, I discovered (not rediscovered, because they were new to me) several gems--concepts that help me think about my struggles with productivity, creativity, activity, proclivity, and all those other troublesome "ivities." One that comes to mind this morning is the Zeigarnik effect. 

Not so long ago (in the mid 1920s), in a galaxy not so far away (Vienna, to be exact,) Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, was lunching with some other psychologists.  She was struck by their waiter's ability to remember a complex set of orders without writing them down.  But afterwards, one of the party returned to the restaurant in search of a misplaced item.  The waiter had no memory of having waited on this individual a short time ago, or indeed, of having ever seen the person before.  Which got Zeigarnik to thinking.  And when psychologists start thinking, researching is seldom far behind.

What Zeigarnik learned, in a series of studies, was that those tasks we leave unfinished tend to remain in our short-term memory.  

Jeremy Dean, at PsyBlog, joins Baumeister and Tierney in fleshing out what this has to do with procrastination.  (And he has a wonderful vintage picture of Ms. Zeigarnik, looking soulful and inquisitive.)  He uses the model of the "cliffhanger," so frustratingly familiar to TV series viewers, to illustrate the power of the unfinished.

The lesson for procrastinators, asserted by Baumeister and Tierney, and by Dean, is that we continue to be distracted, to hold in consciousness, those tasks that we have left "hanging."  This distractedness gets in the way of our ability to focus on the task at hand, leading us to go "off-task" at least mentally, dividing our attention and diminishing our productivity.  The solution, say Baumeister and Tierney, is to figure out how to park those tasks that are in process, such that they don't keep "popping up."  They advise us to make a specific plan, detailing when and how such projects will be taken up again, including precise next steps.  They maintain that this strategy will reduce stress, improve focus, and lead to a higher rate of task completion.

The image that comes to my mind is not the TV cliffhanger, but my cluttered computer desktop.  My son remonstrates with me regularly about the number of windows and applications I have open at any given time.  This ADHD-style computer usage causes my processor to overheat, and to slow down to a primordial pace.  The solution?  Close some windows.  Close a lot of windows.  I literally can't complete what I'm working on with gillions of applications running in the background, and scores of tabs open.  

My brain, it seems, is experiencing the same difficulty.  The solution?  Close some windows.  Close a lot of windows.  Calendar them, bookmark them, list them, delegate them, organize them. . . .  And close them.


  1. For some light relief here is a funny about procrastination

  2. Thanks! I love Maxine, and this is great.

  3. Yes - the ultimate check (as in checkmate) is the undone and undecided. Take a look at Getting Things Done : the Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I agree with the premise, but have too many windows open to take it all in at the moment. The first layer is acknowledging - check.