Getting Started With The Zeigarnik Effect

The most difficult step in your weight loss journey is usually the first one – getting started isn't just physically challenging, but psychologically demanding, particularly if you've tried and failed to lose weight before. This section will explain why the first step is often the hardest, and how you can make it easier on yourself: physically, practically, and psychologically.

According to research cited by Benjamin Zander, around 20% of us identify as chronic procrastinators – and I'd say that's probably an underestimation! Unfortunately, procrastination can often block the path to success. Here are just some of the reasons we procrastinate:

  • Fear of failure
  • Chronic self-doubt
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of a project
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Underestimating how long it might take to do something.

You may have some of your own reasons for procrastinating; indeed, you might remember previous weight loss attempts when you've kept uttering those famous last words, "I'll start exercising and eating right...tomorrow".

The good news is that you can break the cycle of procrastination, and start your healthy life journey today! The secret lies in something called the Zeigarnik effect, which Zander discusses at length in The Art of POSSIBILITY2.

In the 1920s, a Russian psychology graduate named Bluma Zeigarnik conducted an experiment after informally observed the behaviour of waiters in a coffee shop one day. She noticed that when a customer asked for the bill, the waiter could easily recall what they'd ordered. However, if a customer paid the bill and then queried it afterwards, the waiters had difficult remembering what their order had been.

Zeigarnik's research involved asking participants to perform basic tasks such as stacking wooden blocks. Sometimes, she asked them to stop before they were finished. She then asked all participants to describe the tasks they had performed. Just like the waiters, only those who had left their tasks unfinished could successfully describe what they'd been doing. This led Zeigarnik to conclude that commencing an activity creates a kind of 'psychic anxiety' in your mind: until you've finished it, it remains active in your consciousness.

This is good news for procrastinators. When you procrastinate, you tend to avoid starting a task, but when you do start—even if it's only the smallest of starts—you create 'psychic anxiety' in your mind that compels you to see the activity through until it's finished. Telling yourself you'll only work on something for a short while might result in your getting it all done!

So what are the implications of this in terms of weight loss? It's easy: all you have to do is make the smallest of starts, and you'll awaken your 'psychic anxiety'. That small start can be anything—not skipping breakfast, walking to the postbox, not buying a block of chocolate next time you're at the supermarket—and once you've done it, you'll have begun your weight loss journey and want to see it through. And remember, there are no goals or timeframes here—your journey can take you as far as you like. Discovering what lies ahead is all part of the challenge, and part of the fun.

As you prepare to begin your weight loss journey, kickstart your 'psychic anxiety' by considering the following questions. Your answers will help you develop your motivation you need to clear that first hurdle – once you're over that, you're already well on your way.

  • 1

    Think about what small change you could make today that could symbolise the beginning of your weight loss journey. It can be related to food, mind, or exercise, and it can be as small as you like, as long as it represents a change—something to begin your journey to a healthier you.

  • 2

    Consider what made you decide to embark on your healthy life journey in the first place. Why are you doing this? What do you hope to get out of it? What's going to be different about this weight loss attempt compared to others you may have tried—or not even started—in the past?

  • 3

    Imagine how you'll feel after you've made that first small change. What other changes do you think it could lead to?

1 B Zander, The Art of Possibility, Harvard Business School Press, USA, 2000, p.92.

2 Zander, p.92.