Zeigarnik Effect: Can Crappy Music Prevent a Habit Change?


Zeigarnik effect

Right now, I have a song stuck in my head:

“Moves like Jagger” by Maroon 5.

All I can think of are its inane lyrics:

“Look into my eyes and I’ll own you
With them moves like Jagger
I’ve got the moves like Jagger
I’ve got the moves like Jagger”

Not the greatest writing in the world. Not a song I like.  And definitely not what I want to think about right now.

So why is it stuck in my head?

Because it just popped up on Pandora and I turned it off halfway through.

I am sure you’ve had this happen to you more than once–the one song you don’t like gets stuck in your head.

What you might not know is that this is an example of the Zeigarnik Effect which is a popular concept in psychology.

While the results of the Zeigarnik Effect can be annoying, understanding it can help with sticking to a habit change.

In this article we’ll talk about this phenomenon and how you can use it to your advantage.

History of the Zeigarnik Effect

Bluma Zeigarnik first noticed something in the 1920’s. She saw that a waiter, with seemingly perfect recall of their dishes, couldn’t remember a thing about the food after it was delivered. This led her to a series of experiments where subjects would be interrupted in the middle of putting together a puzzle. Those that were interrupted, remembered a lot more about the puzzle than the subjects who were allowed to complete the task.

Like hearing that “Moves Like Jagger” song and turning it off midstream, the mind can get stuck on uncompleted tasks–until you’re able to check them off.

Your mind has trouble handling cliff-hangers, open loops and uncompleted tasks.  When they occur, your subconscious will keep nagging your conscious mind until it feels like the tasks are completed.

How the Zeigarnik Effect Negatively Affects Your Goals

In a recent article about the What the Hell Effect, I talked about how willpower is a finite resource. When your mind is busy chewing over 30 things at once, it’s hard to do any of them well. (That’s why I recommend only changing one habit at a time.)

If you’re trying to make a lasting habit change, it’s important to focus on one task at a time.  But, if your mind is filled with thoughts about other uncompleted tasks, it won’t be 100% committed to a habit.  Really, the only way to stay committed to a new routine is to find a way “close all the other loops” in your life.

The Zeigarnik Effect and Goal Setting

In the  book Willpower, Baumeister/Tierney pointed out that many of the popular theories on the Zeigarnik Effect are wrong.  They discussed additional experiments where an uncompleted task will bother you–up until the point when you make a plan.

In other words, if something keeps popping into your mind, simply turn it into a plan and it will no longer weigh down your conscious mind.

Now, a “plan” means is more than a task.  It involves writing specifics like: Time, place, who and how.

What this means for habit development is twofold:

  1. Make plans for everything and you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand
  2. This lets you complete more actions and form more habits.

Getting rid of your bad habits often involves completing goals.  And one of the quickest way to derail a plan is to get stuck in mind traps where you’re not focused on a goal.

How to Use the Zeigarnik Effect to Change Habits

So how can you use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage?

The simplest solution is to create the “mind like water” routine like what’s explained in the book, Getting Things Done.  The idea here is to focus on your current habit change by clearing your mind of all its uncompleted tasks.

You can do this in five simple steps:

  1. Create an “idea capture” habit.  Whenever something pops into your head, write it down immediately.
  2. Once a week organize and process these notes.
  3. If it’s a task that takes less than two minutes to complete, immediately do it.
  4. If it’s a task that takes longer, either create a plan for completing it in the future or schedule a follow up at a later date.
  5. Use this routine to focus on the current habit you’re trying to adopt or change.

I’ll admit this is a very basic overview of what’s covered in Getting Things Done.  But, it provides a simple plan for handling those random, uncompleted thoughts that pop into your head.

Never forget that the Zeigarnik Effect can derail any habit change.  The mind loves working on unsolved problems.  So, whenever you feel like you “should” do something else, write down this thought and then follow up on it within a few days.  This will help you stay on top of the current habit change you’re trying to make.

If you are interested in habits and are already familiar with David Allen’s great book, you may want to check out some great books similar to Getting Things Done or books similar to Power of Habit

10 Responses to Zeigarnik Effect: Can Crappy Music Prevent a Habit Change?

  1. Hiten October 14, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    Hi SJ,

    This was an excellent post and thanks for sharing information about the Zeigarnik Effect. I wasn’t aware of this before.

    I can really appreciate what you wrote about switching to creating plan when something keeps poping up in our minds. I can see how this would work to help remove any discomfort from being bogged down by too many activities we think we should be doing.

    Thank you.

    • S.J. Scott October 15, 2013 at 1:09 am #

      Yeah, I had a problem for a long-time where I’d get mentally stuck on incomplete tasks. But, writing everything down and setting a date to close this loop was really helped stay focused with what I have to do.

  2. Michal October 16, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    My 5 cents, as usual ;)
    I’ve developed unconscously the habit of carrying a pen and a notepad always with me. Maybe that’s a reason of my success ratio in habits development.
    Writing down is just a part of the process. Point 2 – organize and process notes – is crucial. Your mind will not give up the task, even written down, if it won’t “trust” you, that you will check on this item later.
    I struggled with adopting Allen’s system long time because of that. I tried different means of capturing ideas and projects till I stopped at the simple paper pocket notepad.

    • S.J. Scott October 16, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

      Love to get your 5 cents Michal. It is great to have regular commentators, so thanks for that!

      You are right, it is about more than “write it down and forget it” you have to KNOW you will take action in time. Great additional clarification!

  3. Nat October 16, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Hey S.J.

    I took a class on decision science last spring that touched on the Zeigarnik Effect, and it’s amazing how once you know about it GTD makes a lot more sense. I actually bought a moleskine notebook that I carry around with me everywhere so that whenever I have a random idea I can write it down to come back to it later–it helps a lot!

    What I’ll then do is go through my notebook every night and pull out the ideas and thoughts that I want to come back to later and put them in evernote, and cross everything out that isn’t relevant or actionable. I think it’s actually made me better at idea generation over time.


    • S.J. Scott October 16, 2013 at 2:01 pm #


      Nothing like having notebook with you at all times. I always have one with mne most times, and have my cell to take notes the few times I don’t. It is funny, I get my best ideas when I am not TRYING to get ideas. This is YET ANOTHER reason why note-taking is great. It not only clears your mind, but gives you a vehicle for those wonderful ideas you might otherwise lose.

  4. Steve October 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    This is a very interesting take on this idea. I’ve heard of this psychological effect before, but I didn’t think to apply it to habits like this. I can see how you could put this to good use. I can also see why it would weigh you down. When you have all those unfinished things floating around your head, you can’t get past them. They get stuck in your head like a bad song. Oh, and by the way, I now have “Moves Like Jagger” going on in my head. Although i don’t mind that song so it probably won’t last.

    It might be especially useful for someone like me who has a mind that races from topic to topic. Maybe I should cut out all the noise and get more things done and stop them from bouncing around my head unfinished. I might be able to focus a little more which would help me get more tasks done overall too.

    • S.J. Scott October 28, 2013 at 3:13 am #

      Sorry about getting that song ins YOUR head now. It is a catchy tune, I must admit! ;)

  5. Lynn February 8, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Wow – This explains something that I’ve always struggled with! I had never heard of this Zeigarnik effect before today but ALWAYS when a song I’m listening too gets cut off, for whatever reason, I HAVE to go back and finish it or it won’t leave my head. I’ve done this for years and didn’t know it was a common problem or that it had a name.

    • S.J. Scott February 9, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

      Lynn, yeah, this is really common. Your mind just hates having “open loops” and can’t stop thinking about them. This is also the reason so many popular shows like to end with some sort of a lead in to “next episode” it gets the mind stewing, thinking and waiting -and makes it much harder for you to “miss” it.

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