The Zeigarnik Effect

Why it's so hard to stop thinking about everything we have to get done (and so easy to forget what we've already accomplished)

In the 1920s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed an odd thing. While dining out, she was impressed by the complex orders the wait staff was able to remember at one time. Yet, as soon as the bill was paid, the wait staff forgot completely what the orders were. This observation gave rise to the study of what would become known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect refers to our tendency to remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. At first glance the Zeigarnik Effect can seem like a handy adaptation: It’s good to remember the things we need to do, and it’s a positive thing to want to finish the things we start. The problem when it comes to our productivity is two-fold:

First, each incomplete task your brain reminds you about takes up a bit of your attention, splitting your focus and making it harder to concentrate on whatever you’re currently working on. One study found that people who were interrupted during a task performed worse on a subsequent task than those who were allowed to complete the first task before starting the second one.

Second, even if we manage to physically disconnect from work, the Zeigarnik Effect ensures that our unfinished tasks follow us home. They intrude on our family dinners, our vacations, our weekends, and our sleep. There will always be work left to do. We need a way to find relief from the Zeigarnik Effect so we can mentally disconnect in our hours away from work.

The good news is you don’t have to actually complete all of your tasks in order to feel mental relief from the Zeigarnik Effect. Research shows that simply making a plan to finish your incomplete tasks can snooze your brain’s automatic reminders.

What you can do about it:

Write your tasks down. Your brain is a terrible filing system. Instead of keeping tasks in your head, make a habit of writing them down as soon as they come to you. Keep a digital task manager like Todoist on your computer and phone, so you’ll always have it handy to jot down a new to-do.

Have a system for organizing and regularly reviewing your tasks. Your system won’t work if your brain doesn’t trust that it’s accurate and up-to-date. Create rituals for planning your day and week so your brain can trust you’re working on the right things at the right time and can worry about everything else later.

Have an end of work shutdown ritual. Make a plan for tomorrow before you end the work day so your unfinished tasks don’t linger in your mind after-hours.

Find a small way to just get started. The Zeigarnik Effect can also be used to our advantage. When you find yourself putting off a particularly big or difficult task, identify a very small first step you can take. The simple act of starting can trigger your brain to want to keep going to the end.

Don’t forget to look back at how far you’ve come. Another negative side effect of the Zeigarnik Effect is that we quickly forget everything we’ve already accomplished. Don’t forget to look back at your completed tasks during a weekly review to celebrate what you’ve already

More reading if you're interested:

The Psychology of the To-Do List – Why Your Brain Loves Ordered Tasks

The Weekly Review: A Productivity Ritual to Get More Done

The Complete Guide to Planning Your Day

Comic artwork by Anaïs Pirlot-Mares 🎨 Written by Becky Kane ✏️

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