Have you ever worried about finishing a crucial task to the extent that you can’t think of much else? Welcome to the Zeigarnik Effect - your brain’s ‘delete’ function. This pattern is the ability to remember unfinished and incomplete tasks better than completed ones. Look at your daily life for examples. Prior to an important examination, you would have crammed all the information in your head. At the time of the exam, you remembered everything. After the exam, you don’t. That’s the Zeigarnik effect.
Another example is your favourite television show ended on a cliffhanger - you keep thinking about what could happen next - you want to know how this storyline will end. That’s also the Zeigarnik effect.
These incomplete or rather interrupted tasks tend to keep tugging away in our minds. “It is just how our mind works efficiently, by stowing away or getting rid of memories on completed tasks. It does this to make more space in our mind on unfinished tasks that requires our attention and action,” says Aida Suhaimi, a clinical psychologist at Medcare Medical Centre Jumeirah. Once the task is completed, no more effort is required and the mind eases by letting go.
Younger children don’t get to experience this phenomenon much, as they don’t have to deal with work pressures, and career hassles among other things. “Children can compartmentalise. When you’re older, you have a lot going on. You’re trying to manage your career and social life, among other things. There are things you must do in a stipulated amount of time,” explains Gene Anne Thomas, a specialist neurologist from NMC Medical Centre, Sharjah.
The discovery of the Zeigarnik Effect
There’s a story behind this phenomenon.
The discovery of the Zeigarnik Effect can be traced all the way back to the 1920s, by Bluma Zeigarnik, a psychologist of Lithuanian origin. While she was having dinner at a restaurant, she was impressed with her waiter’s impeccable memory. He remembered everyone’s orders, how they wanted it, without writing anything down. However, later he couldn’t remember the orders after the bill was paid. Intrigued, Zeigarnik decided to study this pattern of the mind.
The Zeigarnik Effect is just how our mind works efficiently, by stowing away or getting rid of memories about completed tasks. It does this to make more space in our mind on unfinished tasks that requires our attention and action
She conducted several experiments to understand this pattern further. Participants had to complete a series of 18 to 22 simple tasks, including making a clay figure, constructing a puzzle, or completing a mathematical problem. Half of the tasks were interrupted before the participant could complete them. She allowed them to complete the rest of the tasks.
Afterwards, the participants were asked to explain the tasks they worked on. Zeigarnik was curious to know which tasks the participants would recall first. The first group of participants recalled interrupted tasks 90 per cent better than the tasks they completed, and the second group of participants recalled interrupted tasks twice as well as completed tasks.
Zeigarnik asserted that tasks left incomplete resulted in cognitive tension that involved much mental effort. People tend to keep holding on to that thought about the unfinished task, until it is completed. She concluded in her series of experiments that when tasks were incomplete due to interruptions, a person was more prone to feel dissatisfied and frustrated.
Why does it cause stress?
Sometimes, it’s like a bee in your bonnet.
The anxiety about unfinished tasks can lead to the building up of stress in the person. They become irritable, overwhelmed, and disconnected from the present.
A constant barrage of intrusive and unwanted thoughts can affect a person adversely and create an intense feeling of anxiety. Our mind finds it difficult to let these thoughts ago, explains Suhaimi. “It has a tendency to bring our attention to these issues frequently, even when we are trying to stay focused on the present.” These unresolved thoughts are brought to the conscious awareness as a reminder that they need to be addressed.
Owing to this strenuous mental effort, the engagement with the present reduces. Moreover, it can lead to low self-esteem as you find it hard to focus on any task. This nagging from the mind can also result in sleep deprivation, explains Mercedes Sheen, a professor at the Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, Dubai.
To avoid this level of mental stress, we need to plan better. “Humans are goal-oriented, so it is important to plan to achieve,” she says. “Some people like to-do lists, while others prefer a detailed plan, but it is important to get started. Clear your desk, put your phone away and focus on the job at hand,” she advises.
Sheen adds that planning ahead will help you use your cognitive resources and get the job done. This will also see a reduction in stress, anxiety and provide a sense of accomplishment.
Can the Zeigarnik Effect be leveraged for our benefit?
We get caught in trying to constantly solve problems in our professional and personal lives.
Sometimes, we can choose to leave it alone and choose something else. In such cases, the Zeigarnik Effect will help prioritise the problem, explains Sheen. “It allows your brain to engage in insightful problem-solving, which will generate a sense of accomplishment and improve self-esteem.”
Humans are goal-oriented, so it is important to plan to achieve. Some people like to-do lists, while others prefer a detailed plan, but it is important to get started. Clear your desk, put your phone away and focus on the job at hand
It is particularly useful for students studying for examinations. Dividing study sessions into smaller chunks can help with memory retention, says Sheen. “Instead of cramming all night for an exam, students can schedule breaks where they can focus on other activities. During these breaks, their brains are unconsciously rehearsing the exam material, and they are still learning even though they are engaged in other activities,” she adds. This nourishes a feeling of accomplishment and motivates them to return to their books.
(Note: This article was first published on April 4, 2023)