When Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik sat in a busy restaurant back in the 1920s, she was there to dine not to conduct an experiment. But her attention was snared by something quite odd. She noticed that waiters at the restaurant seemed able to remember any number of complex, unpaid meal orders but struggled to recall details once those orders had been paid.
Intrigued, she later conducted a number of experiments and observed the same phenomenon in the lab. Participants could not easily recall details once tasks were completed but were somehow able to recall unfinished tasks nine times better than completed ones.
This experience would later be called the Zeigarnik Effect and is described as the tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks more easily than those that have been completed.
The Zeigarnik Effect in our everyday lives
You see the Zeigarnik Effect at play every day:
- It’s why cliffhangers in those TV series you watch have you coming back week after week. You’re compelled to tune in to see what happens.
- It’s why that unfinished thriller of a novel keeps you buzzing with anticipation to dive right back in. You just can’t get it out of your mind.
- It’s also why that important, unfinished project at work preys on your mind and haunts your dreams (something I can relate to) there’s that nagging feeling of something left undone.
The Zeigarnik Effect ensures that thoughts will intrude when you’ve moved on to something else, reminders that a previous task was left incomplete. Your subconscious mind signals to your conscious that you have unfinished business.
The Science behind the Zeigarnik Effect
The literature suggests that the Zeigarnik Effect gives insight into how memory works. When you focus on something, it moves into short term memory and much of that information is soon forgotten. It takes much more mental effort, however, to rehearse something and then move the information into long term memory.
According to Zeigarnik, failing to complete a task creates cognitive tension which means you exert greater mental effort to keep the task at the forefront of your mind. It’s only when the task is completed that your mind is able to let it go.
So what does any of that have to do with you reaching your goals?
The fact that thoughts about one thing pop into your mind while you’re doing something else is what will ensure that you refocus on your goal. The Zeigarnik Effect, by creating that tension within you when you go off track, acts as a timely reminder to get back on track and concentrate on what’s important. The key is to have started, to have taken at least that first step, no matter how small. It’s essential to make working towards your goal that unfinished task.
‘But I’ve started plenty of things,’ I hear you cry, ‘and not been able to follow through on any of them.’
That may be the case, but this may explain why.
In later experiments, it was discovered that motivation played a key role in what tasks triggered the Zeigarnik Effect. Any old task wouldn’t do as those quickly disappeared from short term memory. The task had to be one that was important.
The bottom line
To have any chance of leveraging this effect to achieve your goals there are two important requirements:
- Your goals must matter. You must set goals that are not just words on paper but mean something to you. To be motivated by them, you have to care whether they happen or not. Once you commit to the goal it will act as a focal point and the Zeigarnik Effect will keep it front and center in your mind until you achieve it.
- You have to start. This sounds simple but so often procrastination and other distractions can cause you to delay taking action. The Zeignarnik Effect shows that stopping isn’t the problem, not starting is.
Let that nagging voice urge you on
Who’d have thought that a chance observation by a psychologist in a busy restaurant would bring this much insight, but I think it probably confirms something you already knew. To have any chance of success you need to set goals that matter and take action on them. Then maybe the nagging voice of the Zeigarnik Effect will help to push you on.
Now over to you.
Do your goals really matter to you or are they just words on paper or thoughts floating in your mind?
Are you hesitating when it comes to taking that first step?
Could you leverage the Zeigarnik Effect to spur you on? 🙂
Let me know in the comments.
Friedman, W. J. (2010). The zeigarnik effect and completing everything. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/the-zeigarnik-effect-and-completing-everything
Zeigarnik, B. (1938). On finished and unfinished tasks. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pp. 300-314). London, England: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company.