Kill procrastination by taking the first step of a big task

Do you have a big task looming over you? Maybe you need to update your pricing model, but it feels like it’ll take forever. Perhaps you really need to hire a new employee, but the whole process is so long and slow. It might be that you’ve got to complete your annual accounts, but can’t face starting. Overcome procrastination before it’s too late.

While business owners procrastinate less than most people, it’s still pretty common to put off big tasks – especially when the only person pushing you is yourself. If you find yourself putting off things on your to do list, it can eventually damage your business. However, scientific research shows that there’s a powerful way of getting around this problem.

The Zeigarnik effect

The Zeigarnik effect is a phycological phenomenon named after Bluma Zeigarnick, a Lithuanian psychologist who first observed it in 1927. Her research was sparked from the observation that waiters in cafes could remember all the details of a customer’s order before it had been paid for. However, the moment the order had been ‘closed’, the waiters could remember almost nothing about what customer had paid for.

She then carried out numerous experiments which seemed to confirm the theory: people are much better at remembering things before they are ‘complete’.

Zeigarnik conducted a study where she asked people to carry out certain tasks. With some of the participants, she stopped them mid-task, while others were left to finish the activity. A little while later, she asked all the participants what their tasks involved – the people who had been interrupted had a much better memory of what they had been doing, while those who finished the activity could remember much less.

The Zeigarnick effect suggests that once someone begins a task, they tend to have a sense of anxiety and focus until they have completed the task. They can remember all the details involved, they can plan and calculate, and they can motivate themselves to continue. Only on finishing the task can you get that sense of closure – a sort of mental sigh of relief – where you can then basically forget all about it.

How to use the Zeigarnik effect to motivate yourself

Now, how does this apply to that big or boring job you’ve been putting off?

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that when people start a task, they tend to feel a strong sense of urgency until they have completed it. Once you actually begin a piece of work, however tedious, it’s much more likely that you’ll see it through to the end.

So, when you’re faced with a huge task which you don’t really want to do, the Zeigarnik effect says you should just start the first step – however small. Whether it’s a case of logging into your accounting software, starting to brainstorm the job ad or reviewing your current pricing structure, the simple act of doing the most basic part of the task means the rest will almost inevitably follow.

For more tips on running your business like a boss, read our 10 Survival Tips For Entrepreneurs.

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Len is a tech and business writer who covers small business and startup advice and has appeared in many print and digital publications. He lives in London, UK, where he's also a sub editor on a national newspaper. He loves to travel and has lived in France, Spain, Senegal and Rwanda.

Mindfully Upset

No, the title of this article is not a mistake. It is possible to feel upset – or a range of other emotions – and yet remain mindful, just the same. The working world can sometimes leave us feeling unhappy, defensive, blue, or otherwise in low spirits. We don’t have to automatically discount those emotions, nor do we have to pretend that we don’t feel the way we do.

It is said that our true potential is best demonstrated by what we do when we are required to handle difficult situations or people. When feeling upset, we might do any number of perfectly understandable things. We may lash out…choose to give up…or react with anger.

There is an alternative. It’s possible to be mindful while dealing with unwanted emotions. Here are the steps involved:

1. We can start by acknowledging that we feel bad. We have a tendency not to want to feel unpleasant emotions. We are taught that “big boys and girls don’t cry”, or that we should just “suck it up, buttercup”. While we do have to sometimes carry on in the face of whatever is going on, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that we are feeling something we don’t want to feel.

2. Next, name that feeling. Is it sadness, confusion, disappointment, frustration…? This might be harder to do than it seems. After years of pushing our emotions aside, as we are taught to do, we may have become somewhat disengaged with them. Take a minute or two to wait this out. Sit with the slight discomfort of actually FEELING something, in order to name it.

3. Once we name it, we can be mindful about our emotion. We can silently repeat a mantra of “I am feeling (blank).” This mantra isn’t a judgment. It’s just a statement of fact. It’s a deliberate way to accept the emotion, without reacting in a rash way, or compounding negative feelings with self-blame.

4. After naming the emotion, we can check in with the body, to see where we can physically sense it, and exactly what it feels like. Does this feeling create a heaviness, a burning sensation, a tension, or something else? We can listen to the interior monologue of what the emotion is telling us.

5. As time permits, we can spend a little while sitting in silence, and waiting to hear what the emotion has to say. This can often yield a surprising bit of information. A quietly mindful approach to emotions and feelings can provide us with a successful tool to receive whatever message needs to be transmitted.
It may also be that, given a few moments for mindful reflection, we can recognize the baseline reasons why we have this feeling. It may be other than what we have initially thought was the cause.

6. Once we’ve finished being mindful of the emotion, we can take several deep breaths. When possible, we can journal anything that arises from this mindfulness exercise.
These steps don’t need to take too long to fit into your workday, and can be immensely helpful in terms of self- awareness, regulating your reactions, and staying present. All of these skills can make us better co-workers, managers, or leaders.

Don’t Be A Freelancer

Here’s my list of the top three most disposable things in an office.

1) Last week’s leftovers in the fridge
2) Loose staples
3) Freelancers

It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, designer, or programmer. You’re there because you’re cheaper than a full time employee. You’re also easily replaceable by some other freelancer.

The upshot of it is, because you are completely dispensable, it’s easy to get bullied into accepting less than you think you’re worth.

Now, let’s flip it around, because here is my list of three most indispensable things in a business.

1) Today’s lunch
2) Great team
3) Trusted partners/vendors

That’s right. When businesses find the right partners and vendors, it allows them to focus on growing their business, while the vendors and partners play a critical supporting role.

So here comes the million dollar question. What’s the difference between a freelancer and a trusted partner?

What Are You?

A few weeks ago I ran a completely unscientific survey asking people in my Freelance Writers Facebook group if they considered themselves freelancers or B2B service providers. For those who responded, there were follow-up questions about rates and income.

By and large, this is a group that creates marketing content for business clients. They aren’t writing magazine articles for Atlantic Monthly, or proofreading academic papers for individuals.

I expected that people who viewed themselves as B2B service providers would have higher hourly rates and incomes than freelancers. What I didn’t expect was the of the 23 people who responded, only 2 (plus me) viewed themselves as service providers. 92% of my respondents viewed themselves as freelancers.

Clearly, there wasn’t enough data to compare income levels between the two groups, but it was telling that so many freelancers never really stopped to consider the job they do within the business ecosystem.

Simply put, they are a business, even if they are a one-man show. Their clients are businesses. They provide a writing service. By definition, they are business-to-business service providers. But they’ve told themselves they are freelancers.

Becoming a B2B Service Provider

So how do you break out of the freelancer mold, and become the valued service provider your clients can’t live without? Here are a few steps to get you started.

Change Your Mindset – The biggest thing holding you back is probably the idea that you are a freelancer. Until you understand and internalize that you are providing valuable services to your customers, your customers won’t understand it either.

Change Your View of the Project – Stop looking at freelance projects as standalone pieces. Find out where the project stands in your client’s scope of work, and see how you can expand into larger areas of the project. This might mean contributing something outside the scope of your engagement, but if you do it, you’ll find your client starts to look at you differently. And you could find yourself brought into other areas of the project.

Market Yourself Like a Company – This doesn’t mean go beyond your budget, but it does mean stop using generic URLs like, and start promoting yourself as a business. Invest in a URL, website, and logo. Write quality blogs, and create infographics or brochures (or go to Fiver and hire someone to do it for you) for your marketing efforts.