The Zeigarnik Effect

Have you ever struggled to get to sleep because your brain was tormenting you over everything you were supposed to accomplish that day? You’re not the only one, this is something called the Zeigarnik Effect. In this article I am going to explore where the Zeigarnik effect came from, and what that means for us.

Where it all began

In the 1920’s there was a psychology professor by the name of Kurt Lewin who lectured at the University of Berlin. Lewin had a peculiar habit of meeting with his students in a cafe across the street from the University. It was at one of these meetings that Lewin pointed out that the waiters at this Cafe didn’t write anything down. Furthermore, it seemed that these waiters had a perfect memory for their patron’s orders. Lewin observed that after patrons paid their bills the waiters were unable to recall anything that they had initially ordered. This was a repeated behaviour that Lewin observed: A group of people would walk in and order an array of different foods and beverages. As time went on the waiter would consistently remember the total order, but shortly after the order was paid for the waiter was unable to recall anything from the order.

Why did this happen?

It was based on this observation by Lewin that Bluma Zeigarnik based her research. Zeigarnik gave her subjects 20 tasks to perform. These tasks ranged from mental problems such as math and puzzles, to manual tasks such as constructing cardboard boxes and creating clay figures. When the subject looked the most occupied with their work, there was an intentional interruption by the researchers. According to the researchers, subjects were most preoccupied with a task when they had figured out the solution to the task but just hadn’t been able to implement it yet.

What does this mean for our productivity?

One thing we can get from zeigarnik’s study is that people involuntarily remember incomplete tasks better than complete tasks.

The Zeigarnik Effect as a safety mechanism

The Zeigarnik Effect is a human instinct that is necessary for human survival. Imagine a mother tending to multiple children. Perhaps while cooking dinner for her kids she remembers that she still needs to help her middle child with homework and she needs to bath the youngest. While this is a silly example, it demonstrates how the Zeigarnik effect is important to how we function as humans.

The Adverse effects of The Zeigarnik Effect

While the Zeigarnik effect is inherently useful to humans it can also have an adverse effect on us. The Zeigarnik Effect is also what contributes to stress and anxiety. Remember that question that I posed at the beginning of this article? “Have you ever struggled to get to sleep because your brain was tormenting you over everything you were supposed to accomplish that day?”

While the Zeigarnik is helpful for reminding us to do important tasks, this involuntary recall is also what contributes to stress. You see, when you try to store multitudes of incomplete tasks from your to do list in your head you’re doing exactly what David Allen said we mustn’t do. “The brain is for having ideas not storing them” Storing tasks in our head is what leads to subconscious cognitive overload.

How do we leverage the Zeigarnik Effect for better productivity?

Write Stuff down

Not everyone has a memory like the waiters at that Berlin Cafe.

The primary problem with the Zeigarnik Effect is that it forces us to remember things ourselves which results in stress and feeling overwhelmed . The best way to fight this is simply to write stuff down. Implementing a quick capture method in your productivity system is the best way of doing this. A quick capture method is a system used to capture thoughts, tasks and notes as soon as you have them. It could be something as simple as a notebook or notepad that you carry around. Personally, I use Google Keep. I then transfer things in Google Keep to my knowledge management system and task management system during my weekly review.

Review tasks that you have completed

Part of my weekly review (as the name implies) is reviewing tasks that I have completed within the last week. Like the Zeigarnik effect would suggest, most of the tasks I review, I don’t even remember doing until looking at them again. Reviewing tasks that you have done is important because it allows you to see how much you have actually achieved. When you’re always focused on what you still need to do and not on what you’ve already done it’s easy to get into a productivity slump. Reviewing your past tasks will give you a sense of achievement. This is something you can do on a daily or weekly basis.

Final thoughts

I love studying phenomenons like the Zeigarnik effect because it allows me to understand how people work. Once we know how we work, we can make changes to improve our inherent flaws. The Zeigarnik effect can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The waiters in Luwin’s Cafe and the mother tending to her children find it helpful. However, we all suffer because of the Zeigarnik Effect on a daily basis. To combat this we need to be more diligent about writing things down instead of relying purely on memory. Once we overcome this innate human habit we unlock a whole new world of freedom.

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