Have you ever been interrupted in the middle of a task and found it hard to concentrate on anything else until you returned to it? Or tried to take a break before completing a job, only to find that you can’t relax – because the unfinished task is spinning in your mind? This is the Zeigarnik effect in motion.
Put simply, the Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to remember uncompleted tasks better than completed ones. It’s powerfully deployed in film, TV and books in the form of cliff-hangers – leaving plot points unresolved to ensure we consume the next installment. But you can harness this same energy to benefit your work. Here are just four ways to use the Zeigarnik effect to boost your productivity.
In the 1920s, Dr. Zeigarnik was dining with friends when she noticed that the restaurant staff were able to remember extremely long and complex orders – but once it was settled, their memory of it totally disappeared. Studying this psychological tendency further, Zeigarnik found that people were more likely to remember tasks that were in progress, than ones they had completed.
She showed that once we start a task, our brain develops a task-specific tension. This tension improves cognitive access to relevant information – making it easier for us to complete it – and is only relieved when the task is finished. When we work on an interesting task and suddenly have to stop, this tension makes it hard for us to concentrate fully on anything else; we simply can’t settle until we can get back and finish it.
So how can we use this task-specific tension to our advantage to sustain our focus and productive momentum?
Many of us are prone to procrastination, leaving tasks to the last minute before rushing through them, which can lead to stress and error. If you have a complex task ahead that you’re reluctant to begin – even if the due date isn’t for a while – try making a start on it early on. It doesn’t matter how long you work on it for; simply starting can have a powerful effect on motivation. Once you’ve made a dent in your task, you’ll find it keeps popping into your head and nudging you to do a bit more… and a bit more… until it’s done. You can use time blocking to make this process easier – helping you commit to small chunks of time to work on your task; just 30 minutes can give you enough drive to actually finish it.
Taking short deep breaks while working on a task effectively creates continuous task-specific tension. This can actually help to strengthen memory and make it easier to access relevant information; studies show that students who temporarily stop revising to do unrelated activities (like reading unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break. To keep your productive momentum going, thread distinct short breaks throughout your day. Just make sure you do something completely unrelated to your task, like making a drink, going for a walk or doing timed exercises.
Without the right approach, task-related tension can of course be highly unproductive – feeding our desire to multitask and introducing task residue into our day. When our brains continually remind us that we haven’t done something, it can lead to anxiety, tension and even burnout – all of which destroy our productivity. To contain the negative potential of the Zeigarnik effect, try writing a to-do list of all your unfinished tasks at the end of the day. A study by Florida State University showed that people who write down specific plans to complete a task at a later date experience fewer distracting thoughts about their unfinished work. So simply acknowledging that you have an outstanding task and writing down when you’ll complete it can reduce mental strain and allow you to relax – meaning you return to the task refreshed and ready to focus.
As mentioned, the Zeigarnik approach is used to powerful effect in the form of cliffhangers. While you might not have a TV series to write or a movie to promote, that doesn’t mean you can’t use this same approach to generate attention and interest in your work. If you’re giving a presentation or pitch, take a break at a key point to keep the topic at the forefront of your audience’s minds. Use informational teasers to generate interest for lackluster internal updates or events – not just for product launches. If you’re holding a meeting where you need to get important feedback, give people notice the day before; it allows people to mull it over beforehand, meaning their feedback will be more detailed, relevant and clear.