The Zeigarnik Effect and Its Connection to Procrastination

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Connie Ragen Green — The Zeigarnik Effect and Procrastination

There is a principle I learned about when I first came online and started writing my own sales copy called the “Zeigarnik Effect.”It was named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a highly respected Russian psychologist and psychiatrist. It all began while she was in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters seemed only to remember the orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, those orders completely evaporated from their memory. During the 1920s she conducted a study on memory, in which she compared memory in relation to incomplete and complete tasks. The result of this study showed that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than successful ones.

This principle is around the idea that we must have completion. It makes me think about the time I was collecting some drinking glasses from McDonald’s. Every week they issued a new one based on cartoon characters. I love my collection as it grew, so when I was going to be on vacation for two weeks I asked a good friend to please pick up the two I would miss while I was away. I didn’t give it another thought and left for my vacation. When I returned I called him to see which collector glasses had been released and to make arrangements to pick them up. To my shock and dismay, this friend I had known and trusted for so long admitted that he had completely forgotten to go to McDonald’s and pick them up while I was away.
I went to my local McDonald’s to inquire about this, but they told me it would not be possible to get the ones I had missed. They even gave ‘me the phone number to contact the corporate headquarters, but they gave me the same answer. Those two glasses were missing from my collection and I was not happy.

Why is it that we must have completion in this way?

This article about the Zeigarnik Effect, from Dr. Jeremy Dean explains the points I want to make here:

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on. She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927). Except some of the time they were interrupted half way through the 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 completed.

Procrastination and the Connection to the Zeigarnik Effect

What does this have to do with procrastination? I’ll give you another clue…

Almost sixty years later Kenneth McGraw and colleagues carried out another test of the Zeigarnik effect (McGraw et al., 1982). In it participants had to do a really tricky puzzle; except they were interrupted before any of them could solve it and told the study was over. Despite this nearly 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway.
Got it yet?

The Cliffhanger

Here’s another clue: one of the oldest tricks in the TV business for keeping viewers tuned in to a serial week after week is the cliffhanger. The hero seems to have fallen off a mountain but the shot cuts away before you can be sure. And then those fateful words: “TO BE CONTINUED…” Literally a cliffhanger.

You tune in next week for the resolution because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.

The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same technique. Many of his works, like Oliver Twist, although later published as complete novels, were originally serialized.

His cliffhangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that his American readership would wait at New York docks for the latest installment to arrive by ship from Britain. They were that desperate to find out what happened next.

I’ve started so I’ll finish.

What all these examples have in common is that 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 starting. It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.

What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.

When you are writing your sales letter and wish to you the Zeigarnik Effect to its maximum effectiveness, early on you will want to open up the loop for this with your readers. I like to say something like “later on I’ll tell you exactly how you can…” and then keep on writing, hitting all of the points I always include in my sales copy. Then towards the end I will close the loop by writing…”remember earlier when I promised to tell you exactly how you can…well now I am going to explain that in great detail.” You MUST close the loop with your Zeigarnik Effect or you will have lost all credibility with your reader. That part they will remember.

As an online entrepreneur, you can use this brilliant Zeigarnik Effect not only in your sales copy, but also in your email messages, during your teleseminars and webinars, and when speaking and presenting at live events. The idea is to promise something that your audience truly wants, and then make them wait a short while before delivering on your promise.

Practice with this to make sure you understand the principle and then run with it as a new strategy to help you with your sales and persuasion strategies. I would love to hear what you are doing with this and how you are implementing it into your online business.

I’m author and online marketing strategist Connie Ragen Green. I work with entrepreneurs to create multiple streams of online income and would love to connect with you. Download my Online Entrepreneur’s Blueprint and get started right away.

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Online marketing strategist, author, speaker, and publisher working with entrepreneurs on six continents.

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