The Zeigarnik Effect: How to Hack your Creative Procrastination 

Two hacks to get shit done
The Zeigarnik Effect: How to Hack your Creative Procrastination 
Jake McNeill
July 8, 2021
5 min read
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Below are two hacks: one for creative and one for regular projects. 

On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr was preparing to speak to 250,000 people on Capitol Hill.

I have a dream speech is one of the most famous speeches in history.

But Martin Luther King Jr winged it!

Even though he had months to write it, the original speech was only written the night before the rally. 

The original draft was called “Normalcy, never again”

Noted gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson shouted to King from the crowd “ Tell them about the dream, Martin” 

Kind departed from his prepared remarks and started improvising, punctuating his points with “ I have a dream…”

King Jr had used ‘dream’ references before in many of his speeches. 

The Zeigarnik Effect

Have you ever been in the shower and the solution to a problem pops into your head?

Psychologists call this The Zeigarnik Effect.

When we leave unfinished work our subconscious is still working on it. Our mind is working out solutions and connecting the dots. 

It’s unfinished business. 


How was it discovered?

Psychologist Bluma Zeigernik was eating in a restaurant in Vienna. She noticed that waiters had better memories for unpaid orders.

After the bills were paid they were unable to recall the orders with any clarity. 

Zeigarnik’s research 

Participants were given simple tasks to complete such as placing beads onto string, puzzles, and maths problems.

Half of the participants were interrupted halfway through the experiment. 

After an hour delay, Zeigarnik asked participants to recall what they had been working on. 

Those that had been interrupted were twice as likely to recall what they had been doing than those that had completed the task.

Results of another experiment showed that participants were 90% more likely to remember unfinished tasks. 

How to use Zeigarnik to hack your performance?

We all procrastinate. Sometimes because the task bores us and other times because we fear the results or the criticism. 

We put off the tasks, leave it till the last minute and then have a mad last-minute panic to complete the task which creates a lot of stress and often produces poor work.

A better strategy is to start early the creative task early and then leave it.

The Zeigarnik effect will kick in and your subconscious will come with better ideas.

I do this all the time when writing articles.

I have an idea, start it, and let out percolate. When I return to it I have several other ideas.

Hacking Procrastination for regular tasks

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of simplifying and serialising. Incidentally, it was a client who came up with this term.

(Hey Michael 👋)

Basically, I boil down big tasks into smaller tasks and build a system around them.

This forces you to execute. 

Creating content is the best for this. 

We publicly make a commitment to deliver content X times per week. 

The 2 Minute Rule

Productivity consultant and best selling author , David Allen created this strategy. 

If it’s under 2 minutes do it now.

Simplify the process. 

  • You’re not writing a blog post, you’re writing two paragraphs.
  • Studying simply becomes opening your notes.
  • Doing the VAT return is simply opening up the free agent software. 

The concept is to simplify the task. And just start it. Anyone can write a couple of paragraphs, or open their study material. 

Starting is the hard part. 

We think we need the motivation to start but that’s not true. When you start you get the motivation to continue.

James Clear also wrote about this hack in his Atomic Habits book. 

The great thing about building habits is it creates an identity. Your self-esteem and confidence will grow.

Why? Because you become someone who sticks to systems. Setting difficult goals and tasks in public is great for mental and emotional health. 

As long as you keep at them.

Procrastinating is terrible for our self-esteem. We beat ourselves up something chronic as we delay important tasks and then get pissed off with ourselves for doing so.

Just start and then continue. 


For creative projects:

Start early and stop. Leave unfinished work and allow your subconscious creativity to come up with new ideas and connect disparate ideas together to create something new. 

For anything else:

Don’t wait for the motivation. It never arrives. Just start the project and then the motivation will come. 

Interested in 1-2-1 Creative Business/ Personal Branding Strategy Session?

I help creators and solopreneurs become famous in their niches. I specialise in:

  • Critical thinking and mental models for clarity and focus
  • Building simple repeatable processes to achieve long term goals
  • Standing out in saturated markets
  • Overcoming creative blocks that are holding you back
  • Turning audiences into super fans

I do discovery calls to see if we’re a good fit.

Cost? $0.00 Commitment? Zero. Time? 30 minutes

More info? Go here

A bit about me

I’m an ex- multi-platinum artist manager. I created strategies and built audiences for artists who sold millions. I’ve challenged myself to write 50 articles in 50 working days. 40 down, 10 to go.

You can read more in the archives here. Find out more information on my website or connect on my LinkedIn

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