What a German waiter and a Russian student can teach you about the best time to start your essays

Why starting your essays early gives you a much better chance of a good grade, increases learning and makes life more interesting.

We all have friends that claim to have sat up all night, done a 3,000 words essay in one sitting and come away with a decent grade. Among some less modest individuals, this can even be a matter of pride – “Look, I spent way less time on this that you and I still got a better grade!”.


Turns out the all-night-coffee-and-cramming approach might not be the best way to tackle your essays after all

But last-minute Larry is actually missing out on some pretty essential learning experiences and opportunities – the kind of thing that university is actually really about. (If you hadn’t guessed it already, no one is going to look at the mark you got for a second year assignment 2 years down the line and base a job offer on it.)

The cognitive difference between starting your essay early and burning the midnight oil the night before D-Day can be explained by a famous piece of cognitive psychology known as the Zeigarnik effect.

Zeigarnik was a Russian research student in Germany, and together with her professor and other students, she would frequent a local café after lectures. They noticed that the waiters in the café never wrote anything down – they could remember entire orders and often for long periods of time. However, once the bill had been paid, if someone questioned it, the waiter, without fail would have forgotten the items on the order.


One might conclude that this was a sneaky way of syphoning off a bit off extra cash for the weekend, but Zeigarnik and her colleagues were scientists, so naturally they thought it might be indicative of something else. They hypothesized that when a job remains unfinished, it stays at the forefront of their mind.

So it proved in lab tests, where recall on a number of tasks proved much better when the participants had been prevented from finishing.

So why is that, and how does it apply to us at university? Well, scientists think that when a job is unfinished, the brain is working hard behind the scenes to help us finish it. Our brain is picking up on all sorts of external cues that relate to our topic that we might not have otherwise noticed. It’s a bit like when you buy a new car and suddenly see you’re seeing it everywhere. In the case of a student writing an essay, it might be that material from your lectures starts to spark ideas you would never have had or conversations with fellow students inspire new routes for investigation.

Procrastination, therefore, can actually work in our favour, as long as the job has been started. Apply this to your essays, and a good approach might be to look at the title, do some reading and perhaps write a first draft, but then put this to one side for a few weeks. You may find that things in lectures, fragments of conversations or even scenes from films or TV programmes all spark off ideas you would never have had otherwise.

For more on how cognitive science can help organise your study schedule, check out out ‘User Your Brain’ workshop. Dates and times for the next course are available here.