As issue for you to address or are you always putting it off?

People fall into one of two categories when it comes to getting things done. There are those who draw up to-do lists and manage their time efficiently, and there are those who never have enough time.

The former tend to get things done whilst the latter are busy procrastinating. Putting off today what they’ll probably also put off tomorrow.
We all have an item or two of unanswered correspondence in our in-tray. Things we don’t really want to deal with like writs and summonses, parking fine demands and county court judgments. (It’s never dull in my office, I’ll tell you.)

Two weeks later and the unanswered correspondence is officially a ‘pile’. Two weeks after that and it’s become a hillock. Wait further and it’s a mountain.  You get the idea.

So how do we stop procrastinating and start getting things done? Well, a study by McCrea, Liberman, Trope & Sherman appears to demonstrate that how quickly we act depends upon how we construe the issue. Apparently, there are two kinds of construal: abstract and concrete. Suppose you have a major presentation that you are putting off planning. An ‘abstract construal’ is one where you imagine the audience laughing along and clapping rapturously at the end. Whereas a ‘concrete construal’ is where you imagine specific feedback on your performance such as a flattering e-mail from your boss.

So researchers devised a study to get participants into one of these two modes of thinking. Half of them were shown a painting and told it was a good example of neo-impressionism in which the artist was using order and colour to invoke emotion and harmony. This is a good example of an ‘abstract construal’. Meanwhile, the other half were just shown the detail of the painting and told that it demonstrated a particular technique of using contrasting points of colour to build up an image. This is a concrete construal.

Both groups were then asked to complete a survey and return it within three weeks. Their answers were irrelevant – the only thing the researchers wanted to discover was how long participants took to return the questionnaire. This was their measure of procrastination. Those thinking about abstract issues such as emotion and harmony took almost twice as long to return the survey as those who were thinking about specific techniques and details. Taking on board findings from other research in this area, the answer is clear: to avoid procrastinating on a task, you should keep the ultimate abstract goal in mind but also focus on its details and use self-imposed deadlines. If you can be bothered.

And there’s something else to help you avoid procrastination.

Get started.
Dare to begin.

That’s all there is to it.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always impressed by waiters who don’t write anything down. No matter how many diners there are in your party, or how complex the order, they remember it all. Most of the time, anyway. So how do they do it?
Well, that’s a question that was on the lips of Russian Psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, and one that she was determined to answer with an in-depth experiment. Also on her lips for twenty eight consecutive nights was a selection of garlic breads and dough balls, plus a variety of pizzas and pasta dishes in rich béchamel sauce. The result?

She put on five stones in less than a month. In the end they had to knock down a wall and call an ambulance.

Okay, so I maybe embellished that story a little. However, what Bluma observed was that although the waiters could remember the entire order of every table when it was ‘live’, they somehow managed to erase this information from their brain as soon as the bill was paid and a new set of diners sat down. To prove this theory, and also to discover if it held true for people doing other tasks, she conducted a cunning experiment that didn’t involve eating any kind of fattening food at all.

Instead, she asked a number of willing participants to do twenty or so simple tasks such as solving puzzles and stringing beads. Some of the tasks they were allowed to complete in one go, whilst in others, they were interrupted before being allowed to continue. After completing all the tasks successfully they were then asked to recall as many of the different tasks as possible. As Bluma suspected, most people remembered about twice as many tasks where they had been interrupted, as they did those they had done in one go.

But what does this have to do with procrastination and how to be more successful? Well some years after Bluma had named her theory ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’ (in our house that’s code for putting on a lot of weight in a short amount of time) Kenneth McGraw and his colleagues carried out a further test. This time, participants were asked to do a really tricky puzzle. However, before any of them could solve it, they were told the study was over.

Despite this instruction, about 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway.
Similarly, one of the oldest tricks for keeping viewers tuned in to a TV serial is the cliffhanger. You know the sort of thing, the hero falls off a mountain pass or is tied to a radiator in a burning building but before we can discover his fate the words “TO BE CONTINUED…” appear on screen and the credits roll. Literally a cliffhanger. What’s more, you join the millions who tune in next time to find out what happened because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.

So here, finally, is the point.

When people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it. Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid. It may be that we don’t know how to start or even where to start. What the Zeigarnik effect teaches us is that to beat procrastination you just have to start somewhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get a project underway then the rest will follow. Because once you’ve made a start, there’s something drawing you on to the end. And if you don’t finish it, it’ll niggle away in the back of your mind like an unresolved cliffhanger. Of course, none of this explains why my back bedroom is still only half decorated after two years. But at least I’ve made a start.

So to avoid procrastinating on a task, you should keep the ultimate abstract goal in mind, focus on its details, use self-imposed deadlines but most importantly, dare to begin.

But after you’ve started how do you change what may be the habit of a lifetime?

Well, a study by Dr Philippa Lally ~ Doo to her friends ~ revealed some interesting facts about how to successfully form new, long lasting habits. Together with her colleagues at University College London she recruited people who wanted to get into the habit of doing something healthy like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 15 minute run. Participants were then asked daily how automatic their chosen activity felt. Questions included things like whether the behaviour was ‘hard not to do’ and could be done ‘without thinking’, and ‘What’s that cream bun doing in your back pocket?’

Not surprisingly, the normal plateau curve occurred. That’s to say, after a period of time either the habit was formed and became automatic, or it became too much of an effort and they returned to reading a copy of the Racing Post in the local snug. Typically, the plateau in ‘automaticity’ was reached after 66 days. Which meant that the new activity had become as much of a habit as it was ever going to be. However, although the average was 66 days, there was a marked variation in how long habits took to form. Anywhere from 18 days up to the thick end of nine months is possible. I think as a teenager it took me about three days to form the habit of drinking beer but I can’t remember very much about it now.

As you’d imagine, drinking a daily glass of water became automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast required more dedication. So what does this research tell us? Firstly, never try to do fifty sit-ups whilst drinking a glass of water. It’s not clever and it goes everywhere. But perhaps more importantly, it revealed that when we want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating fruit or taking exercise, it could still take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour actually becomes a habit. And, while skipping single days isn’t detrimental in the long-term, it’s those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s something long and cool waiting for me in the fridge.