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A Simple Power Trick For Getting Stuff Done

The psychology of procrastination and completion

A simple power trick for getting stuff done
Procrastination is often unconsciously tied to cognitive dissonance - a kind of wilful blindness

Famously, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and we’ve probably all been in situations that testify to the truth of that saying.

Sadly, it’s equally true to say that the road to nowhere is paved with action-free intentions.

Another thing they say is: “A goal without a plan is just a dream.” When people tell you to “follow your dream” you might be tempted to focus just on the dream itself.

But to make the dream happen you’ll need to focus strongly on the “follow” part, the actual steps along the path toward your dream.

Many people plan to make this or that happen in their lives. They plan to start and build businesses, develop some skill or talent, pursue some long cherished dream or other.

But they never really get going.

They never actually do anything about it.

Procrastinate? No, I’m just…um…

What’s more, procrastination is often unconsciously tied to cognitive dissonance – a kind of wilful blindness. This allows us to procrastinate very effectively while convincing ourselves that we are not procrastinating at all! Facing up to your actual procrastination honestly is the first step to overcoming it.

Procrastination often starts to creep in when the glamour and excitement of our dream or goal comes up against the harsh and even boring reality of actually working step by step towards that goal.

The journey to your dream vacation destination might not be as much fun as actually being there, but that journey is essential to the destination. Fantasizing about how delicious your meal is going to be is all very well, but if you want to actually taste it, you have to get in the kitchen and cook.

We’ve all enjoyed fantasies of future success and accomplishment, but if fantasizing is all we do, we actually become less likely to transform these dreams into reality.

The power of hypnotic rehearsal

Happily for us all, research has found (1) that hypnotically rehearsing the steps towards the goal rather than just fantasizing about the end result makes working towards that goal much, much more compelling. This is because hypnotic rehearsal of the steps makes the steps themselves more compelling.

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So rather than just dreaming and imagining what it will be like to have written that book, completed that PhD, recorded that album or set up your business, get into the habit of mentally rehearsing yourself taking the steps you need to achieve these goals.

One of the easiest ways to use this principle is first to take a little time to think about all the different steps you need to take to get to your goal, and then take 20 minutes self hypnotically rehearsing watching yourself undertaking each step.

So, for example, if one of the steps toward setting up your own business is filling out a form to register as a limited company, you would set time aside to hypnotically observe your future self actually carrying out this specific step.

The next step might be to open a business bank account. To do this you will need to approach a bank and talk to an advisor, or work your way through an online application process, or both.

So you set time aside to hypnotically watch yourself travelling to the bank, waiting for your appointment, speaking to the advisor, hear yourself asking questions, and being asked questions. And you also rehearse carefully reading a bank’s website page, and starting the application process. And so on.

Now the strange thing is that, once you’ve hypnotically rehearsed these steps, they stop being mere abstract hassles standing between you and your goal and become compelling and real to you.

Actually, you’ll find that if you’ve really strongly envisaged your practical steps, making them as vivid and real in your imagination as you can, it can become hard not to do them!

(If hypnotic rehearsal is something you need help with, my course Uncommon Hypnotherapy covers that and much more).

Of course, a major step in any project is the very first one – actually getting down to starting. If what you need to do to get started is walk to your desk, sit down, switch on your computer, open a document and start tapping on your keyboard, then you can hypnotically observe yourself doing this beforehand to make it more compelling that you will actually get started.

Research has found that you’re more likely to actually do something when you have imagined yourself from an observer position doing it. (2) So you can envisage watching yourself doing these activities on TV, for example.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish…

And I have another anti-procrastination tip I want to share with you which relies on the universal human need to complete something once it’s started.

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, way back in the 1920s, happened to notice that waiters in a café seemed to remember orders that had started to be served, but once the orders had been served, the waiters forgot what they had been.

She was intrigued by this observation, and set up an experiment where participants were asked to undertake twenty or so simple tasks in her lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads. Some of the time, they would be interrupted halfway through a task. Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing.

People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they’d completed. Unfinished tasks were more likely to be recalled than tasks that had been completed or not started at all.

Zeigarnik’s findings were strikingly corroborated in an experiment carried out in the 1980s, where participants were set a really difficult puzzle to solve.

However, they were all interrupted before they could solve it and told that the study was over. Nonetheless, nearly 90% carried on trying to solve the puzzle. (3)

Once you begin something, it’s very hard to stop.

This principle is at work when people start telling you a story or a joke and you feel you just have to know what happens next. Or you read a mystery novel and have to finish it, or watch a cliff-hanger serial on TV and because it’s unresolved you really must tune in next week.

There’s a simple way to use this principle to overcome procrastination. If you have something to do, whether it’s washing dishes, writing a blog or an article, working out, or whatever, and you feel yourself sliding into the quagmire of procrastination, tell yourself “Right, I’m just going to wash these dishes for two minutes!” or “I’m going to write just one paragraph of this article!” or whatever it is.

Interestingly, you should find that once you’ve done two minutes of dish washing or writing or working out, you suddenly feel you want to do a lot more, because of the universal need for completion.

So there are three main points for you to take with you from this:

Firstly – it’s more effective to imagine the steps toward your goal rather than just being at that goal.

Secondly – it’s more compelling to imagine watching yourself carrying out these steps rather than imagining doing the steps from first person perspective.

(Top tip: Don’t say to yourself, “I am sitting here at my desk, filling in that form…”. Do say to yourself, “That’s me over there, sitting at his/her desk, and he/she is filling in that form…”}

And thirdly – we are hardwired, it seems, to feel compelled to complete things we’ve started, so even just starting something with the intention of only spending a couple of minutes on it can make you feel compelled to continue with it, even if you hadn’t felt compelled at all beforehand. And if you can use self hypnosis you can actually hypnotically start a task, to give yourself the feeling that it has started and so needs to be completed.

So you can either

  • start ‘for real’, with the intention of doing only a few minutes, or
  • hypnotically imagine starting.

Both approaches will make the completion of the step more compelling for you in reality.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

Notes:

  1. The motivating function of thinking about the future. Oettingen, G. and Mayer, D. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 83(5), Nov 2002, 1198-1212.
  2. Seeing future success: Does imagery perspective influence achievement motivation? Vasquez N.A. and Buehler, R. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2007 vol. 33 no. 10 1392-1405
  3. Undermining the Zeigarnik effect: Another hidden cost of reward. McGraw, K.O. and Fiala, J. Journal of Personality, Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 58-66, March 1982

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