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Zeigarnik Effect: Why Your Brain Nags You While You’re Procrastinating

When people procrastinate, there is a voice within them prodding them to return to the task they are supposed to finish.  / Photo by: Yulia Grogoryeva via 123rf

 

People tend to recall incomplete tasks more than those they have completed, a study shows. When people procrastinate, there is a voice within them prodding them to return to the task they are supposed to finish. This phenomenon is known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

This concept was developed by Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik, a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist from the University of Berlin. It was based on an observation by her professor Dr. Kurt Lewin. He pointed out that waiters had the tendency to recall orders that were unpaid and still being cooked rather than those that had already been cooked and were paid already. Dr. Lewin saw that the waiters could usually remember every customer’s order even without having to write them on a notepad until they had placed the dishes down.  

 

Zeigarnik's Experiment

Intrigued by what her professor, Dr. Lewin had noticed, she wanted to assess if people really did recall unfinished tasks better than the tasks they had finished. For her experiment, she recruited 164 adults and children. She requested the participants to complete 18 to 22 simple tasks, which could be finished within three to five minutes. The tasks included solving math problems, completing puzzles, doing craft projects, and other similar work.

After the participants had finished half of the tasks, Dr. Zeigarnik’s colleagues would distract them to prevent them from fully finishing the tasks. When they had tried out all the tasks given, her colleagues asked the participants to remember that tasks which they had done. It was discovered that adults were twice as likely to recall the tasks that were left unfinished than those they had completed. This occurrence was magnified in children.

The results of her study show that incomplete tasks stick to a person’s memory more. This means that if an individual has an objective they have set themselves to complete, even if they are doing something else, thoughts about that goal will suddenly keep appearing continually. The study also reveals that if a certain task has been interrupted, it gives a person the strong urge to finish it. Medium explains that this is because once a task has been done, the brain goes through a cognitive spring cleaning which makes a person focus more on activities that are not completed yet. Her study, titled On Finished and Unfinished Tasks, was published in 1972.

 

The experiment has 164 adults and children participants and were instructed to do different tasks like completing a puzzle. / Photo by: Dmytro Titov via 123rf

 

How to Deal With the Zeigarnik Effect

According to Unwritten, these are the five ways one could use the Zeigarnik Effect to their advantage:

Jot down all the tasks that need to be done

Sarah Allen, a psychologist and content writer from Masterra, says that it impacts a person not only when a person has left a task unfinished but also when a person has not formulated a plan to complete it. Since the subconscious is unable to write down a plan, it makes an individual concentrate on the incomplete task more to be able to find a way to complete it. In turn, when their keeps mulling over the task they have not completed yet, this will divert their attention from their present tasks. To prevent this from happening, people are advised to jot the tasks they intend to do. They should also have a clear understanding of the actions they will take to complete the task and when they plan to do it.

Perform the first step and finish at least a segment of the task

This would be helpful in situations where a person does not feel motivated to do the task and feels like procrastinating. In circumstances like this, it is suggested that they at least perform the first step and finish it partially. This will help their brain remember their task. This will also push them to keep coming back to their project, which will help them go further into the project until they have finally completed it.

Breakdown the most inconvenient and dragging tasks into different parts

Next, they must note which tasks are the most time-consuming and burdensome then break them down into smaller segments. This will prompt them to move towards the next step, until such time that they have done the whole task. Achieving their short-term goals will help boost their self-esteem and confidence. Although they may not have completely finished their project, they will feel that they had done their best. Little by little, they will be nearing the end of their goal.

 

 

Build-up good habits

The Zeigarnik Effect can be used as a strategy for creating good habits. For example, if a person wants to begin doing a hundred push-ups every day but does not feel inspired to start, they can do a lesser number of push-ups. They might start with 27. It is much more efficient than not actually doing any push-ups. After being able to exert effort in doing a few push-ups, this may lead them to want to do it again tomorrow.

Retain more information

This technique will help improve a person’s memory. To illustrate, to be able to recall how to play a piano piece, the individual may practice the first half of the piece. Then, they will interrupt themselves for awhile by thinking of other things or doing some other activity. They may try drawing something or maybe eating cake. Afterwards, they can go back to the piano and practice the second half of their piano piece. This way, they can remember more notes of their piece.   

 

The Zeigarnik Effect in Action

This strategy is often used by people in the media, particularly by advertisers. Sometimes they may do this making a radio ad have a jingle which will make others feel the need to listen to it until it finishes. In a TV ad, they may divide the ad into episodes to make the viewers anticipate the ending of the advertisement. A song may also have this effect. For example, a person may have a part of a song replaying in their mind over and over.

The Zeigarnik Effect can also be useful in negotiations and in social situations. One way to make someone recall them is for them to tell them an intensely interesting and thrilling story, then intentionally interrupting themselves. For example, they can excuse saying they have a call they have to answer or that they have some other event they have to attend.

 

One example of Zeigarnik effect is when someone told an interesting story and the listener recalls it. / Photo by: Mykola Kravchenko via 123rf

 

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