In my corporate days, I was lucky enough to work with Facebook on some projects, which required several visits to its Menlo Park headquarters. In one campus building, it had a giant whiteboard that encouraged people to sign their names and write sayings on it. Separated in one corner of the board, surrounded by a double-lined box, were seven words that caught my eye. I’d later see those same words printed on colorful posters in different places around campus.
Build it. Don’t talk about building it.
I learned that these words captured the spirit of a famed Facebook tradition, hack-a-thons. This is when Facebook engineers assemble for an all-night marathon of writing code, even pitching tents on the campus lawn to maximize working time. The goal is to take the spark of a pet idea and get it going. Build a prototype rather than talking about building a prototype.
By the time the morning rolls around, others may have collaborated on the prototype and maybe what emerges is awesome. Or maybe it will suck. But either way, it will have been kick-started so that it can be tested, iterated upon, retested, made better, and so on.
This sentiment is the key to overcoming procrastination because it’s literally the opposite of procrastination — just getting it going. But doing so also triggers something helpful, something known as the Zeigarnik effect, named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.
In her research, Zeigarnik asked respondents to complete a series of simple cognitive tasks (like putting puzzle pieces together). The respondents were interrupted in the middle of doing these tasks and asked to recall details of tasks they had already started or completed. Respondents remembered twice as many details about the tasks that were started but not yet complete compared with those that were complete, highlighting a common human tendency. It gets better.
In a second study, respondents were given a difficult puzzle and were told they had as much time as they needed to solve it. Before anyone had finished, however, they were abruptly told that their time had ended. Ninety percent of the test respondents kept working anyway.
With her work, Zeigarnik had cleverly illustrated that you’ll remember uncompleted tasks far better than completed ones because uncompleted tasks nag at you and you’re thus driven to complete them. For the same reason, when a TV show ends with a cliffhanger, you want to see the next episode immediately.
So if you just get started, if you build it, not talk about building it, the Zeigarnik effect will kick in and help you to completion.
But beware natural tendencies that can keep you from just getting going.
To enable the Facebook cure to procrastination, avoid these three misconceptions.
Why then do we so often fail to just get started? In doing research for my book Find the Fire, I discovered three misconceptions that make us put off getting going.
1. “I work better under pressure.”
Tim Pychyl, psychologist, director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University, and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, has bad news for you. Your belief that you work better under pressure is a myth.
In fact, the opposite is true. Pychyl’s research has shown over and over that stress and time pressures make it harder for your brain to function and absorb new knowledge and that many more errors of omission (leaving out something that should have been included) and commission (doing something wrong or poorly) are made.
Don’t let this myth hold you back from getting going.
2. “My willpower will eventually kick in.”
Sorry, but psychology research on something called ego-depletion doesn’t support this belief either. This means that your willpower is a limited resource that can be used up in its entirety. The more you resist starting a task, the more your willpower to start that task is depleted. Eventually, your willpower tank will be emptied and the motivation gauge will read “zero.”
So don’t count on your willpower to power you up later when you need it.
3. “My self-imposed deadlines will keep me on track.”
Again, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but a study from New York University and the University of Texas disprove this. Different groups of students were given word jumbles with cash incentives to complete the jumble on time. Groups were given one final deadline, a series of intermittent deadlines, or no deadlines. Those imposing their own deadline had the lowest completion rate because they started the jumbles too late, discovered it was harder than they thought, and, when faced with time dwindling, bailed.
Net, your deadlines won’t help when you keep putting off starting something. So, like at Facebook, the writing is on the wall. It’s time to end your procrastination.