A Love-Hate Relationship With the Zeigarnik Effect

Ever toss and turn in the wee hours, haunted by lingering thoughts of unfinished tasks or unresolved feelings? Instead of focusing on the work at hand, your mind wanders through an endless to-do list. There’s a name for this obsession with the unfinished. Psychologists call it the Zeigarnik Effect, named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who first described the phenomenon in the early 1920s.

Origins of the Zeigarnik Effect

Bluma Zeigarnik first observed this phenomenon while dining at a restaurant in Vienna, where she noticed that the waiters seemed to remember orders only so long as the order was in the process of being served. But as soon as the order was finished, they would promptly forget the details. Zeigarnik’s subsequent research revealed that people could recall incomplete or interrupted tasks up to twice as well as completed ones, suggesting that our minds crave closure and unresolved matters can lead to a perpetual loop of mental unrest.

No wonder we persist in playing a video game until we win. And TV series “end” on a cliffhanger because with the Zeigarnik Effect in action, there is no need for too much convincing and reminders to get viewers to tune in for the next season.

It is a love-hate relationship with the Zeigarnik Effect. But is this fixation on the unfinished a good or bad thing?

Closing “Open Loops”

The Zeigarnik Effect is a result of “open loops”—undone tasks, unanswered questions, unsolved problems, and unmet goals that linger and loop in our minds. While “open loops” keep our brains active, having too many of them saps our mental energy, reduces productivity, and limits our brain’s ability to recharge, causing stress and overwhelm.

Instead of getting frustrated over your mind’s natural tendency to dwell on unfinished businesses, overcome the burden of the Zeigarnik Effect with these three strategies that aim to help you close those pesky “open loops” and accomplish tasks without exhausting your mental resources.

1 Transfer your to-do list from your brain onto paper (or a digital list)
If you don’t write all your actionable tasks down, you risk forgetting them. And because things are always easier to manage when visible or tangible, writing down all the things you need to do, with some extra effort putinto categorising and prioritising them, can offer better oversight and clarity. Not to mention, physically ticking off items from a to-do list is immensely satisfying.

While penning your to-do list does not diminish the workload, it is a strategic offloading of your mind from an exhausting, looping mental reel, of which the energy consumed by this loop can now be invested more efficiently in completing the actual work.

2 Delete, Delegate, Defer, and Do it now.
Now that you have a to-do list, use the 4Ds of time management to reduce the number of items on it. The 4Ds are Delete, Delegate, Defer, and Do it now. To apply these principles, review your to-do list and ask yourself the following questions:
· What can I delete from my list?
· What can I delegate?
· What can I defer and schedule for a later date?
· What can I do right now?

For things you can do right away, David Allen, author of the renowned time management book:
Getting Things Done, suggests that if an action takes less than two minutes, it should be done immediately. Many things can be done in under two minutes, such as washing a dish, replying to an email, telling someone you appreciate them, doing 10 push-ups, or reading the first page of your book. And since completing these tasks is inevitable, why not tackle them upfront to clear your mind for more significant subjects? Instead of adding these brief tasks to your to-do list, as Nike says, “Just do it.”

3 Design Your Own Shutdown Rituals
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, proposes a “shutdown ritual” to conclude the day. Similar to flipping a switch, it signifies the closure of “open loops”, liberating the mind from lingering on incomplete tasks after work hours. According to Newport, he does the following routine “without exception” at the end of each normal workday: He reviews and updates his master task list, calendar, and weekly plan, taking him just five minutes. And when he is ready to finalise the ritual, he utters his magic termination phrase: “Schedule shutdown, complete.”

What this magical phrase does is help him fend off worrying thoughts about incomplete work after hours. Because if they do come up, he can assure himself that he has invoked the termination phrase, which indicates that he has gone through the shutdown ritual to stay on top of everything, and “therefore, there is no need to worry.” Such a neat technique to tame the mind and manage the Zeigarnik Effect!

Embracing “Open Loops”

The Zeigarnik Effect is ingrained into our psychology. As much as we can strive to close our “open loops”, we will not completely eradicate these lingering thoughts of unfinished businesses. Plus, even if we are on top of all our incomplete tasks, some tasks—because they require more time to achieve—will continue to remain as an “open loop” in our brains while we work on them. So rather than futilely opposing the Zeigarnik Effect, why not embrace it?

Improve task management: Instead of viewing the Zeigarnik Effect as a cognitive challenge, see it as a healthy catalyst for a persistent drive to finish tasks and achieve goals. Utilise it as motivation to tackle procrastinated tasks. And before we know it, we are deploying task management techniques to help us better manage our life. One such technique is to break down large tasks into smaller steps to trick the brain into perceiving tasks as a work-in-progress rather than something unfinished.

Learn better, remember better: If we tend to remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones, why not leave things unfinished to remember them better? To stimulate your brain in studying or memorising information, try deliberately pausing in the middle of a chapter or leaving some questions unanswered, and you can come back to them later.

Overcome mental block: Experiencing a creative block or a writer’s block? Leaving your work unfinished and revisiting it later can lead to fresh perspectives and new ideas. Because, like it or not, your brain will continue processing tasks even when you are not consciously thinking about them.

Love or Hate the Zeigarnik Effect?

Like all things, self-awareness is the first step to personal growth. Understand the Zeigarnik Effect and its influence on your daily life. While you may hate it for its haunting effect, know that we can never fully eliminate it.

Your mind wants closure on unfinished matters, so give it what it wants. Make a to-do list. If you cannot delete the tasks, delegate or defer them. If it is only a two-minute task, get it over with. And your shutdown ritual might be the one consistent thing you can look forward to every evening.

Now that you have done all you can to close your “open loops”, whatever is left of the Zeigarnik Effect in you, let it motivate you to achieve your goals and find better ways to improve your task management skills. You can even harness it as a study technique and integrate it into your creative thinking process.

As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.“ Let love win in your love-hate relationship with the Zeigarnik Effect.