How to use the Zeigarnik Effect to stop procrastinating

By David Mann

If you think all productivity roads lead to procrastination, you’ve never heard of the Zeigarnik Effect. It’s the brainchild of 20th-century Russian psychologist and psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik, and it just might prevent you from checking YouTube before you tackle your next ugly project.

While dining in a restaurant, Zeigarnik noticed that the waiters were quite capable of remembering multiple orders that were being processed, but once the orders were complete and the food was served, the waiters forgot about those orders.

Zeigarnik wondered why, so she set up a series of experiments to uncover the reason.

Zeigarnik’s experiments involved a group of subjects who were asked to complete various tasks. Some subjects were allowed to complete the tasks, while others were interrupted and not allowed to finish. She then asked the subjects to recall the tasks. What Zeigarnik found was that the incomplete tasks were remembered approximately twice as well as the completed ones.

Through further studies, Zeigarnik concluded that the “recall-value” of unfinished tasks is high because it’s human nature to complete a task we’ve already started. Who knew?

If we don’t finish, there’s mental tension. This mental tension keeps the unfinished task more prominent in our memory, whereas completion of the task provides closure, and a release of the tension. This is what is known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

Once you hear the reasoning behind it, it makes sense. So much sense, in fact, that marketers and TV networks use it all the time. A cliffhanger is a great example of the Zeigarnik Effect at work. People tune in because they want a conclusion. They want closure.

And in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve used the Zeigarnik Effect in this article. Not to trick you, but to demonstrate its effectiveness. I told you that the Zeigarnik Effect could help you stop procrastinating, but I didn’t complete the thought by telling you what the Zeigarnik Effect was right away. If you’ve read this far, then it worked – or my writing is simply captivating. Hopefully both.

So what’s the best way to get through that seemingly daunting task? Just get started. Knowing that your brain will nag you to complete it should make it easier to dive in. Once you’ve started, it’s okay to take a break and be distracted. In fact, research shows that 90-minute sessions of productive work followed by breaks of no more than 20 minutes are optimal for increased focus and energy throughout the day.

Now excuse me, there’s a cat video that I absolutely must watch.

David Mann is a San Francisco-based writer and creative director. Follow him@davidmannsf.

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