The Zeigarnik Effect states that people tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks.

By Rajiv Dabhadkar

The last year has finally come to an end ! As we wait in anticipation of the good news in 2021, the pandemic has left most of us with some unfinished business. The unfinished goals tug at our attention due to its incompleteness. Repeated incomplete tasks correlates with mental health issues.

So, here’s a incidence that explains how this common human attribute came to be known. It is from Berlin sometime in the mid twentieth century.

A protégé, her colleagues along with her mentor were having food at a restaurant in Berlin. From drinks to starters to mains and desserts a waiter served them with perfection. He never wrote down anything yet with a nod or two served them well. He brought right dishes and drinks for everyone.

After everyone had finished eating the lady realised that she had left her purse behind. When she did head back, the waiter couldn’t quite recognise her or where she was seated just a short time ago. How could that be?

The waiter had a simple explanation. His task of serving them was completed and he fully shifted his attention to the next task at hand. He had to shut himself off and focus on what he was responsible at that moment. To him, his uncompleted tasks were the ones that mattered. The waiter had a better recollection of unpaid orders versus the ones that had already been paid

The mentor was Kurt Lewin. And the protege was the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. That dinner lead to what’s called the “Zeigarnik Effect”.

The Zeigarnik Effect states that people tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks.

Interrupted work, unfinished business tug at our attention. They have a tendency to remind us of their existence. Sometimes at odd times when we would much rather not think about them! Like when we are enjoying a quiet evening with the family or soaking in a beautiful sunset.

A desire to complete a task can lead it to stay in a person’s memory until it is completed! When completion does happen, the process of forgetting has a greater chance of happening. There are several other fascinating implications and results.

Here’s another experiment. British psychologist John Bradley conducted a set of experiments where he invited people to solve anagrams.
(An anagram is a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of a different word or phrase, typically using all the original letters exactly once. For example, the word anagram can be rearranged into nag a ram also the word binary into brainy or the word adobe into abode.)

After they were done, he asked people to try and recall words used in the experiment. People remembered the words that they had not solved far more than the ones that they had! Unfinished business, interrupted work stay with us longer!

Surprisingly, he found that the human brain doesn’t like incomplete tasks. Because the task is not yet finished, we keep thinking about it over and over again. The information stays in our mind.Once the task is completed, your brain releases the information and you no longer think about it.

The essence of The Zeigarnik Effect is not curiosity as is commonly mistaken, but it is “incompleteness”. When things are left incomplete, we feel uncomfortable and our attention remains drawn to it until we can find some kind of resolution.

If a person ends a relationship with another, the rejected party often desires to know the reason “why” the relationship came to an end. If the person forcing the break-up is unable to provide a satisfying reason why (and let’s face it, there seldom is one), the rejected party experiences frustration and confusion over the lack of closure.

Impact of incomplete tasks on Mental Health

The Zeigarnik effect also points to reasons people may experience mental health problems. For example, if an individual leaves important tasks incomplete, the intrusive thoughts that result can lead to stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and mental and emotional depletion.

On the other hand, the Zeigarnik effect can improve mental health by providing the motivation needed to finish tasks. And completing a task can give an individual a sense of accomplishment and promote self-esteem and self-confidence. Completing stressful tasks, in particular, can lead to a feeling of closure that can improve psychological well-being.

Are there things that we can do? Turns out there are!

Tackling Unfinished Business

Common sense might tell you that finishing a task is the best way to approach a goal. The Zeigarnik effect instead suggests being interrupted during a task is an effective strategy for improving your ability to remember information.

The Zeigarnik effect has inspired many. Soap operas, internet order forms, the Kindle, Linked In and many others have used it well for their own causes. All that, later.

For now, let’s train our eyes on how we see it at work. Getting a goal and task list calms the mind! Writing them down is step one. That action in itself gives direction to everyday action and work. Besides writing them down, calms the mind down a great deal.

To part satiate our academic curiosity, when complete strangers were asked, what goals they were working on. Here’s what has been reported.

1. The number of people who have a plan for themselves, a sort of a periodic goal, convert that into a daily task list and reflect on it regularly are a tiny minority!

2. When we looked at the folks who were super successful at work AND had time for their family and hobbies – well almost every single one of them had a system of writing down goals, converting them to tasks and reflecting on them. Every single one of them!

The very act of writing goals down gets the Zeigarnik effect getting going! By the way, these people are not just entrepreneurs and business folk. Artists, authors, community workers, sports coaches all say it works for them in their domains.

Writing down goals for periods of time and converting them to daily tasks makes a huge difference.

It Is That Time Of The Year

2020 is over now. And it has not been a stellar year. 2021 is shaping up. A fresh chance to begin afresh. Can we begin an audit of what’s worked in 2020? Take a moment to list down all that’s gone well. The year may have been a cesspool of despair but are there silver linings? What all have you have managed to complete?

And then of course, plot the course of action for the next year! Catch all unfinished business from 2020 and years before and capture them on a page! Personal goals? Financial goals? A relationship that you want to mend? Habits you started out with but gave up? Diet plans that were gobbled by Diwali sweets?

The act of writing goals down and converting them to a daily task list that is reflected upon, is such a simple yet powerful thing to do.

The Kindle and LinkedIn Connection

Have you notice LinkedIn say “Your profile is 95% complete”. Read a book on Kindle and see it tell you that you have completed X % of the book. Guess what! The Zeigarnik system is being put to work. The chances that we complete the profile or the book are far higher when the unfinished business is given a nudge!