The Zeigarnik Effect: Using Unfinished Tasks to Your Advantage

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Imagine that you are watching a thrilling movie on Netflix. You are hooked by the plot, the characters, and the suspense. You can’t wait to see how it ends. But then, something happens. Your internet connection drops, your phone rings, or someone knocks on your door. You have to pause the movie and deal with the interruption. How do you feel? Annoyed? Frustrated? Curious?

If you are like most people, you will probably feel a strong urge to resume the movie as soon as possible and find out what happens next. You will also likely remember the details of the movie better than if you had watched it without any interruption. Why is that?

This is an example of the Zeigarnik effect, a psychological phenomenon that shows how our memory works better for unfinished or interrupted tasks than for completed ones. 

The Science Behind the Zeigarnik Effect

This effect was first observed by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in 1920. She noticed that waiters in a café could recall the orders they had not yet delivered better than those they had distributed. She conducted experiments to test this idea and found that people tend to recall interrupted tasks 90% better than completed tasks

The Zeigarnik effect is based on the idea that our brains don’t like loose ends. When we start a task, we create mental tension and need some form of closure. However, if the task is interrupted or left unfinished, the tension remains and keeps the task in our memory until we can resume and complete it. This tension also makes us more focused and alert when we return to the unfinished task, as we want to get rid of the discomfort. 

How to Use the Zeigarnik Effect

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The Zeigarnik effect presents a great opportunity for anyone looking to improve their productivity, creativity, and learning. Here are some ways you can use it to your advantage:

Break down big tasks into small steps.

When you have a big or complex task to do, it can seem daunting and overwhelming. But if you break it down into small and manageable steps, you can make it easier and more fun. Each step becomes a mini-goal that you can achieve and celebrate. And each time you finish one, you will feel a sense of relief and accomplishment, but also a curiosity and excitement for the next one. This will keep you motivated and engaged, and help you avoid procrastination and boredom.

Turn interruptions into opportunities.

Sometimes, a break from your work can be a good thing, especially if you are working on something creative or challenging. A break can help you refresh your mind, gain new insights, and generate new ideas. But be careful not to take too long or too many breaks, as they might disrupt your focus and flow. And try to end your work sessions at a point where you have something unfinished or unresolved, so that you can easily pick up where you left off and remember what you were doing.

Spark your curiosity with cliffhangers.

The Zeigarnik effect can also help you learn and remember better by making you more curious about the things that you don’t know or understand. For example, if you are reading a book or watching a video course, you can stop at a point where there is a cliffhanger or a question that is not answered yet. This will make you eager to find out what happens next and keep the information in your mind until you do. 

Interrupt yourself.

If you are a fan of deep work, you may not have external interruptions that can trigger the Zeigarnik effect. In that case, you can create your interruptions by using timers or alarms to remind yourself of your unfinished tasks. For example, you can use the Pomodoro technique we previously discussed to break your tasks into 25-minute bouts. Then, take a 5-minute break and do something else. When you return to it, you will more easily fire on.

Keep track of your unfinished tasks.

While the Zeigarnik effect can help you remember your unfinished tasks better than your finished ones, it doesn’t mean that you will never forget them. If you have too many unfinished tasks on your plate, or if they are too vague or complex, you might lose track of them or feel overwhelmed by them. Therefore, it is important to keep track of your unfinished tasks and prioritize them according to their urgency and importance. You can use tools like calendars, planners, or apps to organize your tasks and set reminders for them.

Use the Zeigarnik Effect to Your Advantage

The Zeigarnik Effect is a powerful psychological phenomenon that can be used to our advantage in many ways. By understanding how it works, you can use it to boost your productivity, creativity, and learning. As Leonardo da Vinci said,

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Whether it’s a personal project, a professional goal, or a learning challenge, your unfinished tasks can be opportunities for growth and achievement if you step out and use the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage. So, shall we? 😉


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