How to Use the Zeigarnik Effect to Improve Your Life
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When you are faced with a task, whether it’s a project, a paper that you have to write, or even something simple on your to-do list, are you able to power through it, mark it as being completed, and move on?
I know when I’m able to cross things off of my list–whether it took 2 minutes or 2 months to accomplish–I feel a sense of relief as I completely let go of the responsibility or burden. When I can draw a line through the middle of a listed task, I almost always verbally declare to myself, “Welp, that’s done” and then it’s like it’s deleted from my memory. I just move on to the next thing without having any reason to give my completed task any more of my mental energy.
Alternatively, if I run out of time and have to put an incomplete project aside or I get interrupted while I’m trying to work, I tend to remember more details about the project (well, at least until it’s finished). In fact, if I am interrupted while writing a paper, my mind will genuinely continue to think about what I am going to write next or what conclusions I could make in my final draft.
This psychological phenomenon is called the Zeigarnik Effect, which was named after Bluma Zeigarnik–a psychiatrist and psychologist who identified this concept in 1927.
In this article, I am going to go into detail about what the Zeigarnik effect is and how you can use it to improve your life. Let’s get started by taking a deeper look at the details behind this human behavior.
What is the Zeigarnik Effect?
While dining at a restaurant with her friends in the 1920s, Dr. Zeigarnik was impressed as she noticed the waitstaff’s ability to easily remember long and complex orders from patrons, however, once the orders were paid for, the waitstaff could not recall any details about what people had ordered. It was as if they tightly held onto that information and as soon as the order was passed onto the kitchen, they let go and allowed themselves to forget it.
Zeigarnik went on to actively study this psychological tendency, both in children and adults. She continued to find that people were more inclined to remember details about the tasks that were still in progress than tasks that had been completed.
Once you begin a task, your mind develops a task-specific tension, making it easier for your brain to recall any relevant information. If you get interrupted while you’re working or you need to put the project aside for a while, the tension remains, which means you are still able to easily access pertinent content. However, once the task is finished, this cognitive tension is relieved.
The pervasive thoughts that you experience regarding unresolved issues often motivate you to go back and complete the task. Even if you try to move on to something else, incomplete work can still have an influence on you.
To better understand this, think about how marketing companies use the Zeigarnik effect to motivate consumers. I’m sure you’ve seen ads online that you can’t help but click on. These “clickbait” ads are one of the most effective ways for companies to grab consumers’ attention–even in a society where everything is competing for your time.
Here’s an example: “Snored to Death: How Sleep Apnea can be Fatal.”
If you know someone who snores–which you probably do–you’re likely going to click on this link to find out the resolution to this problem.
Or, let’s say you just finished watching the last episode of a season of your favorite TV show and it ended with a cliffhanger, but won’t come back on the air for another 6 months. I would go ahead and assume that you’re putting that date on your calendar so you can find a sense of closure on whatever just left you eager to know what’s going to happen next.
So, how can you use the Zeigarnik effect to improve your life? Let’s take a look.
#1) It can help improve your memory.
Zeigarnik’s research on this topic gave other psychologists great insight into how the memory works. Information is typically stored in your sensory memory for a short period of time as soon as you take it in. If you pay particular attention to the information, it may remain in your short-term memory. While most of these memories are soon forgotten, if you are actively rehearsing the information, it can progress onto your long-term memory.
Remember the cognitive tension that we mentioned earlier that allows you to easily retrieve information about an unfinished task? This tension causes you to use more mental energy as you continue to recap the information in your head so you can keep it in the forefront of your mind.
This means that the Zeigarnik effect supports the idea of taking breaks or being interrupted while working on a project to help increase your ability to retain information.
So, let’s say you’re studying for a test. Rather than trying to learn all of the information the night before, study the material in increments to increase the likelihood of remembering it during the test. Or, imagine you just got a new job and your boss’s last name is not only long, it is also very complicated to spell. You know that you will need to be able to properly spell your boss’s name while working there, and you find that you always have to look it up before writing it down.
Using the Zeigarnik effect to help you remember how to spell it, you can focus on the first half of the last name for a while until you get it memorized. Then, move on to the second half and do the same thing. Once you put the two together, you won’t have to keep looking up how to accurately spell the name.
#2) It can increase your motivation.
If you have a goal in mind that you want to accomplish, even if you are working on something entirely unrelated, you will still think of that goal until it is complete. And, having these thoughts routinely pop into your mind will make you want to achieve the goal even more.
Incomplete tasks that you have set as personal goals occupy a lot of premium space in your mind and use up your mental resources, which can take away from other things you’re working on in your life. And, because your brain thinks that incomplete tasks are significant, these thoughts will refuse to stop until you complete the task. So when you need an extra boost of motivation to accomplish a goal, try working on it in smaller portions. This will help make certain that you will experience these intrusive thoughts about your goal until it is attained.
#3) It can reduce your tendency to procrastinate.
It’s not uncommon for people to wait until the last minute to mail in their taxes or complete a project that has a strict deadline. But procrastination not only causes stress, it can also lead to mistakes as you rush through your work, and possibly a poor performance review.
If you take the Zeigarnik effect into consideration, you will be more likely to take the first step to completing an assignment long before it’s due–even if it is a miniscule task. After you have started the project, you will find that you keep thinking about the unfinished work until it is actually completed. Every little step you take to work on the project brings you closer to completion, which will not only give you the motivation that you need to finish it, but also free up your mental capacity, allowing you to start working on something else.
The truth is, most people are motivated to close any mental loops that remain open on unfinished projects. And, the closer you are to closing the loop, the more motivated you will be to complete the task. This means that if you set a goal to close your mental loops, your brain will be determined to get that done.
#4) It can increase your productivity.
Further studies of the Zeigarnik effect, completed at Florida State University by Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo, have shed light on how simply knowing about this phenomenon can help you increase your productivity. Their studies found that the reason people have a hard time moving onto a new task if they still had one that was incomplete was because whatever they were working on was still sitting in the forefront of their memory.
To try to remedy this, the researchers had participants write down specific plans to complete their initial task on a later date, which erased the distraction and intruding thoughts about their incomplete tasks.
Because the Zeigarnik effect has shown us that our brains will continue to nag us about incomplete tasks, which can then lead to undue stress, we are now equipped with the knowledge of how to combat this psychological phenomenon. This can help you increase your productivity as you will always be able to give your complete focus to the task at hand. Write everything down that you still need to work on to help close the mental loops in order to reduce the mental strain that unfinished business can cause.
Alternatively, you can use the Zeigarnik effect to improve your productivity by purposefully leaving tasks undone. If you have something on your to-do list that you’re dreading or you know will be a challenge to complete, start the task but only finish half of it. Because you’re familiar with the Zeigarnik effect, you will know that your brain will soon kick in, motivating you to finish the task since your brain strongly dislikes having to think about uncompleted projects.
The initial observation of the Zeigarnik effect in a 1920s restaurant, as well as all of the follow up research done by both Zeigarnik and her peers, suggests that we tend to keep information regarding unfinished tasks in the forefront of our memory, while the details of any task that has been completed is typically released from our minds.
There are a variety of elements that can have an impact on your ability to recall information regarding your current or past projects, but try taking purposeful breaks the next time you’re powering through a task. You may realize that it is easier to recall relevant information regarding the project, feel motivated to complete the work, and help you get the work completed faster.
Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.