They called it the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’, and it explains why people tend to remember more unfinished tasks than finished ones.
Okay, so you are sitting cozily at your desk, working on your business’s website, when a random memory decides to drive by your mind. ‘Oh, crap… I never opened that Facebook account that I will need for ads.’
Yeah, we have all been there. The eternal loop from hell. The shift between feeling great after accomplishing a task and then getting an anxiety attack when you suddenly remember something you said you were going to do but never started or finished.
You will find studies about this effect, backed up by psychological facts. Let’s go down the rabbit hole together and try to explore more on the matter. Maybe you will learn something practical for your everyday life, if not for your business.
The forgetful waiter that remembers the unpaid orders
Enter: Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist. It’s the 1920s and Zeigarnik starts studying a phenomenon first noticed by her professor, the gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin was sitting at a bar one day when he noticed how a waiter had a better memory of unpaid orders than the paid ones.
However, once every order was cleared out, then the waiter had a hard time remembering any details from them. So, basically, he could remember very well that table 25 had ordered a medium-rare steak with fries, a salad, and red wine for two. Yet, once the clients paid for the order and left, that information would hide from the waiter’s memory.
Bluma Zeigarnik’s research
Zeigarnik conducted a list of experiments that involved different tasks for the participants. They had to do things like place beads on a string, solve math problems or put puzzles together.
One thing to keep in mind though is that the participants were split into two groups. One group was interrupted during these tasks while the other part was left to complete the tasks in peace.
After an hour into the experiment, Zeigarnik asked each participant to describe the task that they had been working on. What she discovered was mind-blowing.
The participants that were interrupted during the task, had a 100% more chances of remembering what task they had done, in comparison to those who started and finished the task without distractions.
Zeigarnik did another version of the experiment and the results were nearly the same. The participants who didn’t finish the task or who were interrupted were 90% more likely to remember it than those that did. These studies were published in a paper in 1927 with the title “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks”.
Further Research Exploring the Effect
Fast forward three decades later in the 1960s, and John Baddeley who was a memory researcher did another experiment to further explore these findings. The tasks involved in this experiment were a bit harder. Participants had to solve a set of anagrams during a limited period of time. If they were unable to solve the anagram during that time, the answer was revealed to them.
What Baddeley noticed was that participants who were interrupted had a better memory of the words that they had not solved. By these results, John Baddeley supported Zeigarnik’s first findings that people tend to have a better memory of unfinished or interrupted tasks.
How does the Zeigarnik effect work?
People are designed to work on short-term memory and long-term memory. What is particular about short-term memory is the fact that it is limited in both capacity and duration.
Take this for example; we have to keep repeating information to ourselves in order to hold on to it. That’s not simple mental work to do. Another thing about short-term memory is that the more things you try to remember for the short-term, the harder you have to work to keep all of them in your mind.
Our waiter, for example, could remember a lot of details about the tables he was serving. However, this information about order details remained in his memory until the customers left the restaurant.
Let’s explain the Zeigarnik effect in a simple way. Okay, so people tend to hold on to information about an unfinished or interrupted task in the short-term and they constantly bring it into awareness. We think about the unfinished tasks so often that we remember them better.
This effect shows us a lot about how memory works, not only in the short term. It kind of goes like this okay: Once we receive information, it goes to our short memory where it stays for a short period of time. However, through practice and rehearsal, we are able to save this information into long-term memory.
Now, failing to complete a task will create cognitive tension. This tension will increase the rehearsal of the task in the mind, thus making us remember it better. Yet, once the task is completed, your mind lets it go and focuses elsewhere.
How to use the Zeigarnik effect in real life
The Zeigarnik effect isn’t just an observation of how the human brain works. You can even use it as a psychological trick to improve your everyday life.
Okay, you need to keep an open mind for what you are about to read because it might come off as a… well an unusual surprise. The Zeigarnik effect actually encourages you to interrupt yourself in the middle of a task, since that’s how you’re more likely to finish it faster and with more quality.
One practical example: If you are studying for an exam, instead of trying to choke in all the information, take short breaks. Your mind will bring what you already learned into awareness, making you remember it better.
You can stop procrastination with the help of this effect. Start working on an idea you truly believe in. If you feel like taking a break after you worked on it for 20 minutes… do it. Take a break just short enough to keep you alert about the task you left unfinished. You will most likely process it better during the break and come back to it with fresher ideas.
I bet your mind is probably firing off right now with occasions and examples when you have seen this effect unfold in your past. Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. Once you remember enough occasions, your mind will probably let this go and you will focus on an unfinished task or something you have to do.
Scary, I know, but practical. Once you learn how to consciously use it to your advantage.
Which of these techniques are you going to use?