Superheroes and procrastination (or How to avoid putting off saving the world!)

CONFESSION time… I’m a tenth dan practitioner of the demon art of procrastination.

I can put things off to world class level. If procrastination was actually classified as an olympic sport, I’d have more gold medals than Michael Phelps and, more to the point, since there’s very little physical skill involved in it, I’d probably still be able to over achieve well into my 80s – if I could be bothered!

Through my attempts to overcome this natural tendency to not bother, I have discovered one tip that really does work and, until today, never thought there was anything scientific behind why it worked.

In order to push on and not put off certain types of tasks, I have tried to simply commit to doing something on it. If I had a big presentation due in work or a particularly challenging piece of analysis work that was going to take a while, I just made myself sit down and create the file, maybe name the piece or at least gather all the data files into one place.

I first got this tip from David Allen of Getting Things Done fame (if you haven’t read his now legendary book then get it from Amazon here).

He highlights a example that most of us can probably relate to. His anecdote is that people sometimes go to the fridge to get something and see a spillage or some other kind of mess. They then start to clean up the mess only to notice something in the fridge that’s out of date. Before they know it, they’ve spent 2 hours cleaning out the entire fridge.

By starting an activity, you can quickly become engaged in it, losing yourself completely to the task in hand. In essence, you become lost in the flow of simply doing.

Today, while watching a short but extremely useful video by Jim Kwik on 5 key tips to SMASHING procrastination, I was struck by how similar one of the tips he gave was to the “cleaning the fridge” trick I’d used myself.

(BTW – Jim, like me, loves his super heroes. His company website is called – hence heavy on the Marvel-isms!)

One of the key tip from Jim for beating procrastination is also to simply start anywhere on something you are putting off .

By starting something, the very fact that you have left it incomplete will start to gnaw away at you generating thoughts and feelings that compel you to finish the incomplete.

The effect is actually known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Until I watched Jim’s video I had no idea that there was a scientific theory for this effect but seemingly I’ve used it very effectively for a number of years to move forward on projects, assignments and work tasks that have been sat idle for ages.

The evidence that supports the existence of the Zeigarnik Effect leads us to believe that the memory of incomplete tasks linger longer than completed tasks. If you set yourself a low pressure goal to simply do anything on a project that you’ve been procrastinating over, then you can use this dissonance created by the incompletion to drive your conscious mind to finish it.

You can check out Jim’s entire video below.


Writers have sometimes employed a version of this by finishing writing midway through sentences or even words. Ernest Hemingway gave this advice to writers to overcome writer’s block in A Moveable Feast:

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

Here’s a reminder of the simple steps for using this technique.

  • Set yourself the challenge of simply accomplishing something on a project you’ve otherwise stalled on.
  • Ensure that you allow adequate time for the 5 minute task to evolve into a longer session if need be.
  • Focus on just accomplishing that task but allow your conscious mind to feel a sense of incompletion to drive you on.

So there you have it. A simple trick to get moving on stuff that actually has some cool and important sounding name and solid theoretical basis behind it. Who knew that cleaning out the fridge could be so complex!


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