Why it’s easy to start and much harder to close.

Originally published October 2, 2019 on psychologytoday.com


How would you rate the importance of closing on tasks that you start? Many people don’t realize that not closing on what we start has a wildly negative impact on our self-concept. Most would probably agree that starting tasks is easy, but executing them to completion, is often out of our grasp. In fact, Russian Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik conducted a study in 1927 where she found that subjects had a far greater recall for tasks in which they were interrupted and therefore couldn’t finish, then for the tasks they were able to complete.

According to Joseph Ferrari a researcher and psychologist at DePaul University and author of “Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting it Done” (2010) he estimated that nearly a quarter of people from around the world (approximately 1.92 billion) are lifelong procrastinators.

Zeigarnik’s theories were reinforced by psychologists Ian James and Katherine Kendall in a journal article written in 1997, “Unfinished Processing in the Emotional Disorders: The Zeigarnik Effect.” Their in-depth research proved that intrusive thoughts are pervasive in our brains about tasks we have not completed. These intrusive thoughts can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, obsessions, and compulsions as well as other psychiatric issues. Brains appreciate task completion and closure. Without that reinforcement, our self-confidence and feelings of competence suffer.

What causes procrastination and hinders our ability to close?

There are several reasons why we are susceptible to procrastination and can find closing very challenging:

1. Fear of failure in our eyes or the eyes of others can cause paralysis:

Fearing that you will disappoint others or yourself with the outcome is a cause for paralysis. Paralysis slows down the process or brings it to a halt causing us to wheelspin. The problem with fearing failure lies in how you define “failure.” Whatever you’ve managed to complete so far determines that you’ve already succeeded. No one should determine how you assess and measure your level of success. Even if you let other people do that, everyone will measure success differently. Shut out the noise. Set a bar you can achieve, not one that is set too high. Your standard should not be higher than what you would set for someone else.

2. The possibility that the end will be a letdown:

For some endeavors, it’s difficult to get to the “end” because the journey has been so much fun. Reaching the end often feels like a letdown. In situations such as these, it could be tempting to slow down the process towards the end. Try to explore ways to enjoy what you’ve accomplished after it ends. It will help push you to finish and mitigate the potential letdown so you can continue to reap the benefits of the task even after the job is finished.

3. Difficulty in planning and prioritizing:

Facing challenges with planning and prioritizing can also lead to difficulties finishing. When you get deeper into a job/project, the tasks can become more arduous and time-intensive. Prioritizing and figuring out how to set aside the right amount of time for what needs to be done is essential. It is critical not to allow issues with executive functioning tasks slow the process down to a halt and risk never closing.

4. Several ways to thwart procrastination and close on your tasks:

If you’re struggling with habitual procrastination and finishing tasks, there are several methods you can try that may help you change for the better:

Stop focusing on the possibility of failure, focus on small successes:

Focus on the positive aspects of each success. Don’t focus on the future and what may or may not go right or wrong tomorrow, the next day, week or month. The more you focus on the future, the more you risk paralysis.

Break things down into manageable bytes:

It’s easy to stop moving forward towards closing tasks that are too large. In these situations, avoidance is bound to set in. Break tasks that feel too large into manageable parts. Execute and close each part before moving onto the next. Continue to break tasks into manageable parts. Keep moving ahead slowly and don’t allow yourself to succumb to immobilization.

Choose easy or hard first:

There’s no right or wrong formula for the process. For some people, it’s better to get the hard (but manageable) tasks out of the way first and then move onto the easier ones. For others, it’s the exact opposite. Trust yourself and determine the paradigm that suits you best. You know you. Take a break. Move onto another task. Take another break. Work on daily desk cleanup activities. Allow for meetings if necessary. Your objective should be to focus on organizing your priorities and making a manageable list of all your tasks (big and small).

Always remember you define “closing.”  If “closing” means reaching a point of satisfaction, then you’re done. No one needs to agree with your definition. Don’t allow anyone to dictate what success, failure or “closing” should mean to you. However, keep in mind, self-deceit doesn’t work. As the Zeigarnik Effect demonstrated, your brain can’t be fooled so easily.