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How the Little-Known Zeigarnik Effect Impact Everyone, Daily

Posted September 19, 2022 |  Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

 

KEY POINTS

The Zeigarnik effect is what occurs when the brain more readily recalls an interrupted task than a completed one. Unfinished tasks create mental tension, which impacts how well people perform other tasks in the meantime, according to research. Studies show making plans improves productivity.

 

The Zeigarnik effect isn't exactly what one might call a household name, despite the fact that it's quite common and often makes people incredibly unproductive. The effect is well known, however, to psychological professionals. What is it? It’s what occurs when the brain more readily recalls an interrupted task than a completed one. Bluma Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist who discovered this effect.

 

Zeigarnik studied this recall phenomenon after her professor, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, noticed that a waiter remembered the details of still unpaid orders better than those orders that had already been paid. Zeigarnik performed a series of experiments to uncover the underlying reasons for this phenomenon. She first published her research in 1927 in the journal Psychologische Forschung.

 

Her research built upon one of Lewin's field theories that “a task that has already been started establishes a task-specific tension, which improves cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents. The tension is relieved upon completion of the task but persists if it is interrupted. Through continuous tension, the content is made more easily accessible, and can be easily remembered.”

 

The Zeigarnik Effect as a Study Aid

The Zeigarnik effect is a great tool when someone wants to memorize things. For example, the effect suggests that students who interrupt their study to perform unrelated activities (such as studying a different subject or playing a game), will remember the material better than students who finish study sessions without taking a break. Therefore, a purposeful interruption that might seem like a waste of time when studying is in fact productive.

 

The problem with the Zeigarnik effect in terms of productivity is when it’s in operation for non-studying chores, such as creating and achieving new goals. Two researchers at Florida State University, E. J. Masicampo, and Roy F. Baumeister, found in several studies that the mental tension created by unfinished tasks — what Lewin and Zeigarnik first recognized — persists to the point that it impacts how well people perform other tasks in the meantime. Essentially, unfinished tasks distract people from completing different new tasks.

 

Unfinished Tasks Decrease Productivity

Masicampo and Baumeister believed there was ample theory and evidence that unfulfilled goals persist in the mind, e.g., the Zeigarnik effect. They wanted to know whether this persistence caused distraction. It did. Their studies demonstrated that unfinished goals caused distracting thoughts and poor performance when study participants tried to achieve new goals. They found that the Zeigarnik effect immobilizes the brain’s various cognitive processes that usually promote goal pursuit. In a nutshell, unfinished tasks distract people, thereby making them less efficient going forward.

 

Masicampo and Baumeister further theorized that plan-making — writing out detailed to-do tasks for unfulfilled goals — could lessen the distracting impact of the Zeigarnik effect. Lo and behold, when they allowed participants to create specific plans for their unfinished goals before tackling new tasks, the various interference effects vanished. They found that committing to a specific plan for a goal likely not only facilitates achieving a goal but also frees up cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once someone creates a plan for an unfinished task, the brain suspends the cognitive activity related to attaining the unfinished task. The brain then resumes its goal-related cognitive activity at the planned future time.

 

Planning Isn’t Necessarily Writing a To-Do List

Planning seems to help the brain let go of the cognitive tension from unfinished tasks thereby creating room to accomplish new tasks, i.e., be more productive. To-do list zealots might take this as proof of concept. But that’s the wrong takeaway.

 

Daily to-do lists are not productive for everyone. There are those who swear by using to-do lists and religiously crossing every item off and then those who barely ever refer to theirs or create plans in their heads. What this research does mean is that creating detailed plans to accomplish goals, whether revisited or not, is helpful in relieving cognitive tension (stress) and achieving goals. These are two incredibly productive and worthy outcomes, no matter how one prefers to plan.

 

References

 

Lewin, Kurt (1935). A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

 

Zeigarnik, Bluma (1938). "Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen" [On Finished and Unfinished Tasks] Psychologische Forschung.

 

Masicampo, E. J. and Baumeister, Roy F. (2011). Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals. Florida State University.

Why Productivity Is 1% Effort and 99% Battling Your Biology

by Aytekin Tank

 April 11, 2023

Neuroscientist Dr. Sandra Chapman says our brains can become addicted to productivity.“A person might crave the recognition their work gives them or the salary increases they get,” Chapman told the BBC. “The problem is that just like all addictions, over time a person needs more and more to be satisfied and then it starts to work against you.” That means you need to crush an increasingly longer to-do list, just to feel like you’ve earned the right to sleep or hang out with your family. Even if you wouldn’t classify your quest for productivity as an addiction, I think we’ve lost track of what we’re trying to accomplish. Our tendency to choose quick, urgent tasks over important tasks with longer timelines is called “the urgency effect,” and it explains why it’s so tempting to drown in your inbox instead of thinking strategically. Yet, important tasks have the power to transform your business or career. They also demand calm, focus, and flow. Real productivity comes from prioritizing meaningful work — and it’s not a matter of discipline or willpower. As I was writing my upcoming book, Automate Your Busywork, I realized that productivity is 1% brains and 99% fighting biology. Like most people, I like to think I control my behaviors. I make the decisions around here. Not exactly. The human body is an ever-shifting cocktail of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals that drive our thoughts and behaviors. To do meaningful work, we need to drop the productivity hacks and befriend our biology. Even better, we can build systems that outsmart our hard wiring entirely. Here’s how to stop battling three core instincts and unlock the kind of productivity that will revolutionize your work. Observe the cerebral sabotage…Turn off message notifications. Check. Disable beeps and pings on your devices. Check. I’m sure you know the basics of a distraction-free digital life.Unfortunately, all these small (but necessary) tactics are no match for your wily mind.Take, for example, the Zeigarnik effect, which is the brain’s desire to resolve cognitive tension.When you add a task to your to-do list, you’re opening a loop that your brain longs to close. It wants that item done. Your mind then fuels the urgency effect, prodding you to answer a co-worker’s chat message instead of starting a creative project. Our drive for completion also explains why we can’t resist mysteries and cliffhanger endings. Then there’s the planning fallacy. If you’ve ever wildly underestimated how long a task will take, you know this phenomenon firsthand. When I was starting my company, JotForm, I rarely gave myself enough time to meet my self-imposed deadlines. I eventually learned I was planning for ideal conditions, not real life, which is inevitably filled with road bumps. Knowing what cerebral sabotage looks like can help us avoid it. Even better? Automate yourdistraction-prone tasks. Draft and schedule emails and text messages for later, so they don’t derail your focus. Use tools like Calendly and YouCanBook.me to automatically schedule, confirm, and prepare for meetings. Let automation close the loops so they don’t distract you.Understand your emotions.Procrastination is the enemy of productivity. You won’t achieve your goals if you can’t get started.Many of us were raised to think procrastination belies a lack of willpower or poor time management.Or worse, it’s a sign of laziness. Psychologists have learned it’s actually a cage match between two brain centers: the older, unconscious limbic system, which influences pleasure, and the newer, less evolved prefrontal cortex, where we exercise cognitive control. A winning limbic system always picks procrastination — and a temporary reprieve from unpleasant emotions. When the prefrontal cortex triumphs, your brain will do your bidding. Early in my career, I struggled with procrastination, and I had the same self-defeating thoughts you’ve probably experienced, too. Over time, I started asking myself why I was avoiding a certain task. Was I feeling fear? A lack of confidence? Boredom or frustration? Once I could identify and label the emotions without judgment, I could work with my mind, instead of against it. As JotForm grew, I began automating the tasks I wanted to avoid. After all, computers don’t get grumpy or frustrated, or overstimulated. Turning repetitive processes into automated workflows took my emotions out of the picture entirely.You can do the same. Let automation tools handle your busy work, like invoicing, submitting expense reports, transcribing meeting notes, and organizing spreadsheet data. Care for your mind and body. Our bodies are designed to conserve energy. Even 100 years ago, we needed every calorie we could consume. Now, if you rarely lift more than a fork, or you haven’t seen a vegetable in days, you can’t do your best work. Studies show that regular exercise can improve concentration, memory, creativity, reaction times, and mental stamina. It can also lower stress and help you learn faster. When I start my day with a workout and a hot cup of coffee, I feel unstoppable. Knowing your peak hours is another productivity advantage. These are the times of day when you’re most alert and creative. Difficult tasks elicit less mental pushback and you’re probably in a good mood. Protect these precious hours by automating tedious workflows, and free yourself to focus on the projects that matter. The more you can align your body and mind, instead of wrestling them into productive submission, the more ease and freedom you’ll find in your work. Set reasonable goals and tackle only a few, essential items on your daily to-do list. Give those tasks your very best and automate the rest. Productivity is 1% effort and 99% battling your biology. Good luck.

12 Tips to Keep Your To-Do List Short but Useful

Written by Francisco Sáez

1. Don’t be afraid to use the trash can

It is clear that, in order to have the security and peace of mind that you are not forgetting anything, you must somehow capture everything that comes to your mind. But that doesn’t mean that everything you capture is necessary, interesting or actionable.

When you are processing the material you have collected, ask yourself if it is really something you need in your life or work, and if you want to make a commitment to it. If in doubt, garbage can it! If it turns out that in the end it was something you did have to do, it will come back to you later, in a more obvious way.

Don’t accumulate meaningless tasks. When you review your next action list and see tasks that have been there forever, rethink the need for them. Use the trash can often.

2. Use a different list for actions you have not committed to.

There are always tasks listed that you have not yet fully committed to doing. If you include them all in the same list, they will distract you from what you really have to do. Move those tasks that you still don’t know if you are going to do or not, to a list of “uncommitted” actions (If you practice GTD, that list is the Someday/Maybe list).

Review this list weekly. If something no longer makes sense, delete it. If you have made a commitment—internal or external—to perform any of the actions on it, move them to your to-do list.

3. You don’t need to keep all the actions of a project on display.

You may have already realized that in order to achieve a certain commitment, you must take several actions. Let’s call that set of actions that will lead you to achieve a desired outcome a project. Since you probably won’t be able to do all the actions of a project at once, it doesn’t make sense to have them all on your list of next actions. They generate too much noise.

You only need to include in your task list the first task of each project (in some cases, there may be several tasks that can be done at the same time). When you have done this, delete it and add the next achievable task of the project, indicating to which project it belongs. Logically, this implies having an additional list of projects.

4. Live in the present

Surely, a good part of your next actions, although already committed, do not need to be executed for a few weeks, or even months. These future actions also add unnecessary noise to your action list, so you should hide them for the time being.

An elegant solution to this problem is proposed by David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: save future actions in a Tickler File sorted by date, so that it is easy to activate them when the time comes. You should review this file weekly and move the tasks that are activated to your to-do list.

5. Separate actions from non-actions.

Your task list should contain only actions. Everything else (ideas, information, reference material, etc.) should be somewhere else, without interfering. Use other lists for these things that are not executable actions (if you practice GTD, use the Reference Material list for additional information, and the Someday/Maybe list to keep your ideas alive).

6. Divide your task list into context sublists.

Let’s say you have a list of 30 tasks and you are in a coffee shop with a notebook and an iPad with an internet connection. How many of those 30 tasks are “eligible” under those circumstances?

Instead of having one list of tasks, have several, one for each of the contexts in which you usually find yourself in your daily life. In this way, you only have to look at the sub-list that corresponds to the situation you are in at any given moment. This sub-list, shorter and more focused, is, in reality, your to-do list at this moment.

7. Make a simple estimate of expected times

Let’s go back to the previous case, and add the fact that you are only going to spend half an hour in the cafeteria because you have to go to a meeting afterwards. If you marked your tasks with an expected time (you can’t always do it, but you know how much time some repetitive tasks need), you can reduce your to-do list even more. Just look for those items on the list that can be done in less than 30 minutes.

8. Mark the tasks that require little energy

You can still fine-tune when you are tired at the end of the day or simply don’t have the energy to do complicated things. In those cases, you could filter only the actions that require little energy (answering an email, making a call, reading an article…) and take advantage of those moments.

As in the previous cases, think that, in reality, your next actions list is usually a subset of your to-do list.

9. Tag your tasks

Add any type of tag to your tasks that allows you to classify and filter them by any criteria that you find useful. Organizing your tasks with as much information as possible will allow you to save time when choosing what to do.

10. Mark the most important tasks in the short term

One way to prepare well for the day is to pre-select the most important tasks to be done that day. This will usually be one, two or three tasks. As long as you are in the right context, prioritize those tasks that you have already decided you need to complete as soon as possible.

As long as you don’t complete them, the most important tasks list becomes your real to-do list.

11. Remove the tasks done as soon as possible

Once you have completed a task, mark it as done and remove it from your list. In addition to reducing the size of the list, executing tasks is the ultimate purpose of your task list and, therefore, this generates a very positive reinforcement in your productive habits.

12. Choose the right tool

Unfortunately, all of the above is very difficult to do with pen and paper. You need a good tool accessible from anywhere that also allows you to have the necessary lists and make the necessary movements between them. Your tool should allow you to assign contexts, tags, expected times and energy level to your tasks, and filter by all these concepts. It would also be interesting to be able to indicate which tasks are more important in the short term.

Your tool should help you manage your projects in combination with your task list, and should automatically trigger new active tasks, not only from projects but also from the Tracking File.

In short, your to-do list needs a good dose of realism and concreteness to be useful. With the right approach and the right tool, your to-do list can be the key to a more relaxed life.

12 Tips to Keep Your To-Do List Short but Useful

Written by Francisco Sáez

1. Don’t be afraid to use the trash can

It is clear that, in order to have the security and peace of mind that you are not forgetting anything, you must somehow capture everything that comes to your mind. But that doesn’t mean that everything you capture is necessary, interesting or actionable.

When you are processing the material you have collected, ask yourself if it is really something you need in your life or work, and if you want to make a commitment to it. If in doubt, garbage can it! If it turns out that in the end it was something you did have to do, it will come back to you later, in a more obvious way.

Don’t accumulate meaningless tasks. When you review your next action list and see tasks that have been there forever, rethink the need for them. Use the trash can often.

2. Use a different list for actions you have not committed to.

There are always tasks listed that you have not yet fully committed to doing. If you include them all in the same list, they will distract you from what you really have to do. Move those tasks that you still don’t know if you are going to do or not, to a list of “uncommitted” actions (If you practice GTD, that list is the Someday/Maybe list).

Review this list weekly. If something no longer makes sense, delete it. If you have made a commitment—internal or external—to perform any of the actions on it, move them to your to-do list.

3. You don’t need to keep all the actions of a project on display.

You may have already realized that in order to achieve a certain commitment, you must take several actions. Let’s call that set of actions that will lead you to achieve a desired outcome a project. Since you probably won’t be able to do all the actions of a project at once, it doesn’t make sense to have them all on your list of next actions. They generate too much noise.

You only need to include in your task list the first task of each project (in some cases, there may be several tasks that can be done at the same time). When you have done this, delete it and add the next achievable task of the project, indicating to which project it belongs. Logically, this implies having an additional list of projects.

4. Live in the present

Surely, a good part of your next actions, although already committed, do not need to be executed for a few weeks, or even months. These future actions also add unnecessary noise to your action list, so you should hide them for the time being.

An elegant solution to this problem is proposed by David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: save future actions in a Tickler File sorted by date, so that it is easy to activate them when the time comes. You should review this file weekly and move the tasks that are activated to your to-do list.

5. Separate actions from non-actions.

Your task list should contain only actions. Everything else (ideas, information, reference material, etc.) should be somewhere else, without interfering. Use other lists for these things that are not executable actions (if you practice GTD, use the Reference Material list for additional information, and the Someday/Maybe list to keep your ideas alive).

6. Divide your task list into context sublists.

Let’s say you have a list of 30 tasks and you are in a coffee shop with a notebook and an iPad with an internet connection. How many of those 30 tasks are “eligible” under those circumstances?

Instead of having one list of tasks, have several, one for each of the contexts in which you usually find yourself in your daily life. In this way, you only have to look at the sub-list that corresponds to the situation you are in at any given moment. This sub-list, shorter and more focused, is, in reality, your to-do list at this moment.

7. Make a simple estimate of expected times

Let’s go back to the previous case, and add the fact that you are only going to spend half an hour in the cafeteria because you have to go to a meeting afterwards. If you marked your tasks with an expected time (you can’t always do it, but you know how much time some repetitive tasks need), you can reduce your to-do list even more. Just look for those items on the list that can be done in less than 30 minutes.

8. Mark the tasks that require little energy

You can still fine-tune when you are tired at the end of the day or simply don’t have the energy to do complicated things. In those cases, you could filter only the actions that require little energy (answering an email, making a call, reading an article…) and take advantage of those moments.

As in the previous cases, think that, in reality, your next actions list is usually a subset of your to-do list.

9. Tag your tasks

Add any type of tag to your tasks that allows you to classify and filter them by any criteria that you find useful. Organizing your tasks with as much information as possible will allow you to save time when choosing what to do.

10. Mark the most important tasks in the short term

One way to prepare well for the day is to pre-select the most important tasks to be done that day. This will usually be one, two or three tasks. As long as you are in the right context, prioritize those tasks that you have already decided you need to complete as soon as possible.

As long as you don’t complete them, the most important tasks list becomes your real to-do list.

11. Remove the tasks done as soon as possible

Once you have completed a task, mark it as done and remove it from your list. In addition to reducing the size of the list, executing tasks is the ultimate purpose of your task list and, therefore, this generates a very positive reinforcement in your productive habits.

12. Choose the right tool

Unfortunately, all of the above is very difficult to do with pen and paper. You need a good tool accessible from anywhere that also allows you to have the necessary lists and make the necessary movements between them. Your tool should allow you to assign contexts, tags, expected times and energy level to your tasks, and filter by all these concepts. It would also be interesting to be able to indicate which tasks are more important in the short term.

Your tool should help you manage your projects in combination with your task list, and should automatically trigger new active tasks, not only from projects but also from the Tracking File.

In short, your to-do list needs a good dose of realism and concreteness to be useful. With the right approach and the right tool, your to-do list can be the key to a more relaxed life.

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