Improving Your Productivity: The Zeigarnik Effect

Ever wonder why you seem to have a tougher time focusing when you have several things going on at once? The scientific/psychological reason is connected with what is known as the Zeigarnik Effect.  Merriam Webster's definition of the term is: The psychological tendency to remember an uncompleted task rather than a completed one.  Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, a Soviet Psychologist, was the pioneer in research related to it's effect on memory. Zeigarnik discovered that waiters in a restaurant in Vienna only remembered the orders that were in process. Once the orders were completed, they vanished from their memory.

She later continued her research by asking participants to engage in simple tasks like solving puzzles and stringing beads. Participants were interrupted in the middle of certain tasks, but allowed to finish other ones. When asked about the tasks they remembered, participants were twice as likely to recall the tasks in which they were interrupted than those they had completed (Zeigarnik, 1927). Later experiments by  people like Kenneth McGraw confirmed the key findings of her research. In his study, participants were asked to complete a difficult puzzle. Before anyone was finished, they were interrupted and told that the study was over. Amazingly enough, almost 90% of the participants stayed and continued to work on the puzzle anyway (McGraw et. al, 1982).

Marketers of movie and TV programming surely understand the Zeigarnik Effect. Think back to a movie that just didn't end with all the conflicts resolved or left you with unanswered questions. You probably found yourself silently screaming at the screen, saying, "Don't do this to me! I need to know how it ends." Masterful authors and writers capitalize on the effect as well.

There are numerous takeaways related to focus and productivity to be found in the Zeigarnik Effect, including:

Remember that last staff meeting when five items were discussed but no concrete decisions were made? Now you know why you got so frustrated. Your mind was still stuck at item number one!
  • When we start something, we are more inclined to finish it. It really doesn't matter where we start. Even doing the easiest parts can provide the motivation to continue to completion.
  • Uncompleted tasks will stay on our mind until we finish them. When we physically leave a previous task unfinished, we really aren't mentally leaving it. Our minds will continue to poke us at every opportunity to go finish it. Remember that last staff meeting when five items were discussed but no concrete decisions were made? Now you know why you got so frustrated. Your mind was still stuck at item number one!
  • It may be the strongest source of stress in our day. Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D., in his fantastic article on the subject, writes: The stress of daily hassles and frustrations often stem from incomplete tasks. Ambivalence and procrastination can often be traced to the same source: the lawns bugging you to get mowed; the dishes screaming to be washed; the bills pushing you to get paid. How burdensome is the mental and emotional energy they consume, and how they rob us of the present.

So, now that you know more about the Zeigarnik Effect, how can you use it to improve your productivity? Here are some suggestions:

  • Start by making a list of what is unfinished or unresolved in your life. My list included everything from finishing my doctorate degree to getting a presentation outline to an upcoming client to repairing the gutters on my aunt's home. Dr. Friedman even suggests determining the emotional weight of each item. Once you have identified the ones most weighing you down, take some action to finish or resolve the items on your list.
  • Find the motivation to stop procrastinating. The Zeigarnik Effect clearly shows that we have an internal drive to finish what we start. And it doesn't matter where you start. The motivation to continue comes from merely starting.
  • Break your day into smaller, highly focused segments. Identify the elements of an assignment or task that you can actually finish during those segments. The Pomodoro Technique is an excellent place to learn more about working in short bursts.
  • Recognize how your mind is working against you. For example, you scan your email inbox and recognize that no less than 8 items will need your attention...sometime. You return to what you were working on, or so you thought. You now have at least 8 potential tasks all clamoring for your attention. A better approach would be to set aside a dedicated time to work through your email, and handle each one appropriately. One item may need immediate attention, another might be delegated to someone else, and yet another could be deemed an "A" priority for tomorrow. Your mind will now allow you to forget them for the moment because you have brought some level of closure or at least progress to each one.

Plato is quoted as saying, "The beginning is the most important part of the work." I never quite understood the full depth of his quote until I learned about the Zeigarnik Effect. We really do want to finish what we start.. if we would train ourselves how to do it.

How do you recognize the Zeigarnik Effect in your daily activities?