The Zeigarnik effect shows how unfinished business stays active in our minds, occupying our thoughts and sleeping until it's done, just as a hungry person notices every restaurant and delicious scent on the way home after eating until he loses all interest. .
You may have experienced this effect yourself during school exams, when you sit and prepare for the exam, and then quickly forget everything you learned because you no longer need it.
How Did the Zeigarnik Effect Occur?
The effect is named for Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist. As the story goes, he went out to dinner with a large group of colleagues at a restaurant in Berlin one night and noticed his waiter's impressive ability to remember all complex food and drink orders. After everyone had finished their meal and left the restaurant, Zeigarnik realized that he had forgotten his bag and returned, found the waiter who was serving them, and asked for help. But the waiter did not remember him, and the knowledge of Zeignarik's residence did not stick in his memory.
When asked how she could forget him so quickly, the waiter apologized and explained that he always forgot his orders (and customers) after the meals were served and paid for. He could only do his job if he concentrated only on the open orders he still had to deal with. This meant that unfinished business remained in mind until it was done. Zeigarnik decided to investigate this.
He asked different groups of children and adults to do about 18 simple tasks such as stringing beads, solving puzzles, solving math problems and folding paper in a series of experiments. He let half of the participants finish their task and interrupted the other half and asked them to move on to something else. He asked participants to report what they were working on an hour later. He discovered that interrupters were almost twice as likely to remember what they were doing than those who completed the task.
The study sequence also pointed to some modifier factors: Interruptions in the middle or near the end of tasks were more likely to be remembered than interruptions near the start. Jobs that were beyond a person's capacity or that were difficult were more often forgotten, while those who were tired were more likely to remember completed tasks. There were also significant differences in the performance of those who were more "ambitious" - that is, competitive - or interested in the job at hand, and those who were better able to remember unfinished activities and forget tasks after they were completed.
Many additional researchers have since studied the Zeigarnik effect and have had varying degrees of success in replicating Zeigarnik's findings. An examination of the work of the American psychologist Earl Butterfield forty years later revealed that there was no common pattern in the ability to remember unfinished tasks, but that the differences in outcomes were most likely due to motivation.
Zeigarnik was reviewed by the famous Gestalt psychotherapist Kurt Lewin and was therefore heavily inspired by Gestalt theory. His theory is that people are more likely to remember unfinished tasks because they generate "psychological tension" within them. While the person's mental "demand for completion" is not met, the state of tension and the memory advantage of incomplete activities remain. Once the task is complete, the psychic tension is relieved and the task can be erased from memory.
The current thinking is that the Zeigarnik effect comes from the way our memories work.
When information is perceived, it is retained in sensory memory for between a few milliseconds and five seconds. When we pay attention to something, it is transferred to our short-term (working) memory, which is limited in both its capacity and length; we can only remember a certain amount of information and we need to constantly rehearse it to keep it in mind. Therefore, if you are a waiter dealing with a large number of hungry customers, you will need to remain aware of your customers' orders until they finish their meal, pay their bills and leave. Then you can completely forget about them.
What can you do to make it work for you?
Once you understand how it works, you can use the Zeigarnik effect to increase your productivity in various ways.
Start Somewhere… Anytime You Want
You realize you have a deadline in a week and you want to put it off until the last minute. Do not do this. Simply start somewhere. Take 20 to 30 minutes and dive right in. You don't need to start with the hardest part; start with something simpler. Once you start your mission, no matter how small, it will squirm in the back of your mind, nagging you to do a little more… and a little more… until it's over.
You can also start with a quick overview of what you need to do. Recent research has shown that motivation to complete an unfinished task is higher if we are clearer about what needs to be done to complete it. The writers called this the Hemingway effect, when writer Ernest Hemingway was asked during an interview, “How much should you write in a day?” “The best way is to always stop when it's going well and you know what's going to happen next. If you do this every day while writing a novel. You will never be stuck.”
Plan Tactical Breaks to Help You Remember What You've Learned
Taking a break while working on anything improves our ability to remember information, according to the Zeigarnik effect. According to research, people who take short breaks from their work of five minutes to an hour to do something completely different maintain their focus better than those who try to learn everything in one sitting.
So if you're trying to study, break it up into several sessions. Instead of trying to get through it all in one sitting and repeating the same material, stop and distance yourself from it all. This is when you should be “most immersed,” according to Zeigarnik's research. While you're drinking a cup of coffee or going for a walk, you'll notice that your mind keeps returning to the truths you're trying to absorb. The break will allow you to reflect on what you have learned and organize your thoughts before returning to your study session feeling refreshed and focused.
Set Achievable Goals
The Zeigarnik effect can also help us understand and work through our limitations. Knowing that unfinished business is often accompanied by intrusive thoughts will help you figure out if you have a tendency to hold a lot of balls in the air and feel bogged down. Each new task is a virtual break from what you were doing before. This should encourage you to set realistic limits on how much you do and allow you to increase your work efficiency while reducing frustration.
Knowing that this bias affects everyone allows you to remind your inner critic that feeling overwhelmed by many unfinished tasks is not a reflection of your talent. And when you complete a task effectively, you can enjoy the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with it, then use the good momentum to start working on the next task.
End the Day with a To-Do List
Thomas Edison's famous quote, "Never sleep without a request from your subconscious mind." But research also shows that worrying too much about unfinished business tends to result in sleepless nights. Fortunately, research has also found a way to help you shut yourself off: Have a clear plan of what you're still going to do.
A 2011 study by Florida State University's EJ Masicampo and Roy Baumeister showed that the mere act of planning how to do something frees us from the cognitive burden of unfinished tasks. In one of their experiments, students who were asked to think about an upcoming exam were unable to focus on a next word completion task. Their minds continued to return to their upcoming exams. This effect was eliminated among participants who were allowed to make a plan for when and how to study for the exam. In other words, making a plan not only propelled one towards their goals, but freed their cognitive resources for other pursuits.
In particular, neither group had prepared for the exam by studying. The Zeigarnik effect may be more of a subliminal warning to come up with a plan, rather than a chirping alarm until a task is finished. Once this strategy is established, the subconscious can stop bothering the conscious mind and let it relax until the work is completed as planned.
It is very important to make the strategy specific. In another study, simply thinking about how they could achieve their goals did not prevent people from having intrusive thoughts about their aspirations. Those who adhered to a definite plan of future action were those who were able to relax. In other words, thinking “I must exercise” distracts the subconscious mind as it draws attention to unmet goals and leaves the subconscious mind undecided about what to do next. However, when the conscious mind says, "I'm going for a run before work tomorrow morning," the subconscious mind understands exactly what it needs to do, and it doesn't need to bother the conscious mind with ideas about exercise.
When it comes to closing thoughts of unfinished business. Taking some time at the end of each day to review the day's achievements and then write down what else needs to be done and how is one way to achieve peace of mind. Another option is to empower – thinking about how other people can help achieve a goal has been proven to reduce a person's urge to strive towards that goal. Intrusive thoughts may disappear. If the urgency of the goal diminishes and the need to act is delayed. Your subconscious rejoices when a strategy comes together. Everything will work out in the end.