What is the Zeigarnik effect?
Named after Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who first published the effect in On Finished and Unfinished Tasks (1927), the Zeigarnik effect predicts that people who did not complete a task, perhaps because they were interrupted, have significantly better memory retention for the details of the task than those who started the same task at the same time but have completed it. The suggestion is our memories ‘cache’ information related to incomplete tasks and a process of forgetting starts when the task is complete.
The related suggestion is that once a task is started, we are innately drawn to going back and completing it. There is a drive to close our open loops, so to speak.
This reflects something a great coach called Steve Chandler says, which points at how our relationship with motivation is the wrong way around. He says:
“Motivation isn’t the requirement for taking actions. It’s the result of taking actions.”
What’s that got to do with productivity?
When you arrive to work on Monday morning, do you get flying straight away or do you have some inertia to overcome first? Do you instantly remember where you were and what you need to do next or do you have some remembering first?
In my experience, the ones who get flying straight away are the busiest ones, who probably have incomplete tasks on their mind.
A professional writer once told me that he used to be determined to finish his current chapter before stopping each day. This caused him to work much later into the evenings than he wanted to, eroding his relaxation and family time; and when he got up the next day it took him an hour or two to get over inertia and get his writing momentum going again. When he learned about Zeigarnik effect, he made it his policy to stop in the middle of a sentence. Not just in the middle of a chapter, or a paragraph, but in the middle of a sentence. It reduced his late working and eliminated the inertia he had in the morning. His first two hours were much more productive.
He worked less hours and got more done.
Other ways I’ve seen this applied
I once coached someone who always kept putting off his tax return till the last minute. He’d panic into completion on the deadline date. Most years, he ended up paying the fine because his work was sometimes too busy on the deadline date. One June, knowing about the Zeigarnik effect, I asked him to do the smallest and simplest thing possible thing to get the task started. We decided that was simply to log in to the online submission service. Then, while he was there, to just do the next smallest and simplest thing possible, which we decided was to fill in the personal details page. I said to him to just keep doing the next smallest and simplest thing and he could quit and leave the task unfinished for another session any time he wanted to.
Within the next ninety minutes, P60s and various tax information strewn over his office floor, his tax return was done. Twenty minutes later, they were all nicely filed away too. It was the first year his tax return was done in June. Now that happens every year. He’s also learned how to streamline the task with better filing.
I do much the same with tasks I would otherwise put off.
Professionally, unless I must finish a piece of work the same day, I do the same thing as the writer. I always leave something unfinished for the next morning.
An invitation to experiment
I would like to invite you, the reader, to experiment with this yourself. Remember, there are two parts to this:
- When you think you need motivation, don’t wait for it, take some action first. It can be the smallest, simplest first step, just open an incomplete task; then take the second smallest, simplest step; and then the third. See how far you get. See when the motivation to complete the task kicks in.
- When you take a break, always leave something mid-sentence, so to speak and see what this does for creating instant momentum on your return.
Let me know how your experiments with this go. Also, if you have anything related to share in return, feel free to leave a comment.
Wishing you healthy productivity,