Many of my clients procrastinate doing the hard work of business development. Time, fear, not knowing where to start or something else seems to tie them in knots and prevent action. As a law firm business development consultant and coach, part of my job is to help my coaching clients understand the underlying reason for their business development procrastination so we can attack the problem together and move forward.
When working with procrastination issues, I often use something called the Zeigarnik effect to help people get started. You can use this tool to overcome procrastination in a variety of settings. At its core, the method can be reduced to a simple phrase: “Take the first step.”
In his recent book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman tells the story of a young Russian psychology graduate student named Bluma Zeigarnik, who was seated at a café in Vienna in the 1920s observing the behavior of waiters. She noticed that the waiters had the ability to remember details of multiple food orders without writing themdown. They retained this information until each check was paid. When queried after the check was paid, they struggled to remember items on the order.
Zeigarnik’s study led her to conclude that starting a task creates a sort of psychic need or anxiety to complete what was started. If you begin and are then interrupted, the mind creates a way for you to remember what is necessary and pesters you until you’ve completed it.
The theory is often applied to students. Those who suspend their studies briefly and undertake alternative activities (studying other subjects, playing foosball, etc.) tend to remember material better than do those who don’t take a break.
Psychologist Jeremy Dean posits that procrastination is most crippling when we are faced with a large task and don’t feel we have all the information to start. Lack of business development training hampers lawyers because they don’t know where to begin and desperately don’t want to fail. What the Zeigarnik effect teaches, as Dr. Dean points out, is that one way to beat procrastination is simply by starting whatever you’ve been avoiding. Just start somewhere. Don’t attempt the hardest part first. Pick something trivial and easy, such as making a list or meeting with a coach or making a phone call. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, you’ll want to finish to allay the anxiety you feel around not having completed the task.
We use the Zeigarnik effect as a tool in our workshops by requiring participants to write down the names of people with whom they know they should be in touch. Try it right now. Write down a list of people you really ought to be keeping in touch with but haven’t reached out to in the past six months. Keep it on your desk and then go back to the rest of your day. Perhaps making the list will create the anxious mind you need to stay on task.
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