Haunted by Thoughts about Unfinished Projects? Meet Zeigarnik Effect

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Have you ever noticed that you cannot stop thinking about the things you should have already done but have not? They keep on crossing your mind again and again even when you are trying to focus on something else, and the unfinished work becomes the centerpiece of your current endeavors. Sounds familiar? Well, this phenomenon is known as the Zeigarnik effect and has great influence on how well we remember things.

In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, published the results of her research revolving around a curious effect observed by her in waiters: when she visited Vienna, she went to a restaurant and noted that waiters were much more likely to remember what had been ordered if the order had not been paid yet. Once the money was received, the paid order was out of heart, out of mind.

The thing is, our memory works much more efficiently if it is to store information about uncompleted actions. Unfinished projects and tasks that still require your attention, even if not being worked on now, remain the main matter of concern for the mind. The information you are currently employing in an effort to complete a particular task is not transferred to some back corner of your memory vaults but kept in the foreground. It’s like a pool of thoughts given priority within a set of memory resources allocated to the most important things.

The effect is also behind the notorious tendency of the mind to forget about everything you have learnt for an exam. Once it’s passed, it is difficult to remember what it was all about.

Zeigarnik carried out a series of experiments aimed at finding out whether interrupted and uncompleted actions are remembered in much more detail. She asked several volunteers to string beads and do other not-that-difficult tasks in her laboratory. Some of them were interrupted in the course of doing the activities, and so several tasks were left uncompleted. It turned out that those who managed to complete their task were much more likely to remember what the task was about.

Can we utilize the effect?

Yes. The Zeigarnik effect, if used consciously, can help overcome procrastination and boost learning. What does it have to do with procrastination?

If you tend to procrastinate, you cannot make yourself start doing something and postpone it so that it always ends up at the end of your to-do list. The trick is to start doing it. The first step may be most difficult, but once you have started working on something, your mind will hold the information about it in the forefront. It wants completion, the harmony of activity, the result, so if a thing is left uncompleted, the internalprocesses revolving around this unfinished project will drive your workflow and fend off procrastination. It’s the same trick that urges you to turn the TV on and watch your favorite series or serial, as the feeling of incompletion left by the cliffhanger in the previous episode keeps your mind engaged.

Another way the effect can be used is learning optimization. Imagine that you are preparing for an exam. You have compiled a list of things to learn, and have done nearly everything planned. Instead of completing the full set of preparation tasks and thus letting your mind know that the preparation is complete, learn everything you need to learn AND add some other element, some extra part (that is actually not that necessary) to make the mind perceive it as ‘still in progress’.

The Zeigarnik effect is one of the curious peculiarities of how the mind works, and if you know about it, it can be of even greater use.


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