Picture it: You start a task then get busy with something else. Suddenly, it's 3:00 a.m. and you're waking up, thinking about that thing you didn't finish. It's not past deadline — it's just on your mind. Or, maybe, you start a task, set it aside for a bit, then build up its inter-workings so much in your brain that you can't stand to do it— even if it's as simple as sending an email. Instead, you obsess about it. What if I told you there was a psychological reason it's so hard to draw boundaries between incomplete work tasks and the rest of your life? Boundaries between work and life have been on my mind as COVID-19 has trapped us inside, focusing on work perhaps more than we want. Despite my best efforts, some days, work tasks haunt my mind during my at-home workouts or Zoom happy hours. Thankfully, there's a reason why: The Zeigarnik effect. And we can fight it.
What is the Zeigarnik effect in psychology?
The Zeigarnik effect describes the human tendency to remember incomplete or interrupted tasks and events more easily than completed tasks and events. The effect was first observed in 1927 by Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, after her professor at University of Berlin, Kurt Lewin, mentioned that cafe workers seem to remember incomplete orders better than they remember complete orders. Zeigarnik tested that hypothesis in an experimental setting. Her initial findings, published in "On Finished and Unfinished Tasks" in 1927, found that participants in the study were able to recall details of interrupted or incomplete tasks about 90% better than they remembered details of undisturbed tasks.
Zeigarnik writes that a desire to complete a task can cause a person to retain it in their memory until it has been completed, while completion of the task finally enables it to be forgotten. More specifically, when we start a task, we develop a cognitive tension with it that causes its details to be easily accessible in our brain. This can make the task top of mind when we write a to-do list or make it easy to remember the parts of a project we started yesterday. But it can also cause an incomplete task to haunt our thoughts or distract us from what we're doing now. That cognitive tension remains until we complete the task and our mind allows us to forget.
How do you use the Zeigarnik effect?
The Zeigarnik effect can be helpful. It can help us remember what needs to be done and, with a few simple hacks, it can help with things like memorization and scheduling. For instance, with the Zeigarnik effect in mind, you can cut down on procrastination simply by starting a task a few days before it is due. "Opening" the task will cause your brain to send you reminders its not done and keep the to-dos of it in the front of your mind, urging you to complete it. You can also use the Zeigarnik effect to improve your memory; Breaking things you need to remember into "interrupted" chunks — like splitting a name into two words or a map into sections — can help.
Perhaps one of the most helpful ways to use the Zeigarnik effect? Understanding the Zeigarnik effect can help you be more productive. Studies of the effect at Florida State University by Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo found that people struggle to move on to new tasks when the tension of their incomplete task was taking up space in their mind. They advocate for writing down the details of the incomplete task and a plan for completing it to limit distraction caused by cognitive tension and relieve some of the effect's burden on the memory. Or, try to complete tasks in one sitting to really close the book on them.
How do you overcome the Zeigarnik effect?
Do you ever wonder why you leave things unfinished? Or why you feel so drained or uncomfortable about incomplete tasks, sometimes to the point of building up dread around even the easiest items on your to-do list? The Zeigarnik effect and the tensions it creates can answer this question. You can overcome the overwhelm associated with incomplete tasks by doing the following:
1. Complete simple tasks in one sitting.
We know now that finishing a task helps us forget about it and all of its (sometimes stressful) details. To cut down on feeling mentally drained during the workday, start and finish smaller tasks in one sitting. Then, you are able to cast its details and deadlines out of your brain and save cognitive room for projects that require work across days or weeks.
2. Give yourself enough time to do tasks — don't try to squeeze them in between meetings.
While it may feel productive to knock out parts of a task between meetings, this interrupted mode of work can also contribute to cognitive tension and cause you to be distracted during your meetings. Instead, try to estimate how long something will take and give yourself enough time to finish it in one sitting.
3. If a task requires more than one work session, write down its details and a plan for completing it.
Say something is just too big to tackle at once — anything from a weeks long data project at work to a new workout plan. As we mentioned above, you can relieve the cognitive tension of not finishing this task all at once by "brain dumping" its details, maybe by taking notes in a journal or on your phone of what you need to remember and its action steps. Then, writing a plan for how you will finish the task in the future signals to your brain that it will tackled in the future and gives it the go-ahead to let the task go (for now).
4. Avoid multi-tasking.
You've probably heard before that multi-tasking isn't good for productivity, no matter how nice it feels to think you're tackling so many things at once. The strain on the brain caused by the Zeigarnik effect only reassert the harms of multi-tasking. Give your brain a break by tackling one task at a time instead of working on little bits of everything on your to-do list.
5. Relieve the Zeigarnik effect tension of the workday by writing a to-do list at the end of the day.
Ever feel like the work is just one long, incomplete task? Same. Relieve the tension of the workday by following the advice I gave for big tasks above: jot down the details of what you still have to complete and write out a plan for how you'll tackle it tomorrow. This signals to your brain that you can relieve the tension of keeping those details at the front of your mind — they'll be handled later.