You may not be aware of the Zeigarnik Effect, but it is almost probable that you have experienced it. If you’ve ever lay in bed late at night pondering the day’s unfinished business or been unable to get rid of an earworm you heard a snippet of many hours ago, you’re familiar with this psychological phenomenon: the propensity for humans to recall incomplete chores better than completed things. Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian psychologist, was the inspiration for the effect. She observed something odd while sitting in a Viennese café in the late 1920s: her server had an extraordinary capacity to recall clients’ orders in minute detail – right up until the bills were paid.
Zeigarnik returned to the lab and decided to look into it more. She gave a group of children and adult’s basic tasks such as stringing beads, putting puzzles together, and completing math problems, and then she asked them to recount what they had been doing after an hour’s break to clear their minds. Simple. But there’s a catch: just half of them were permitted to complete their duty. And Zeigarnik discovered the same impact she had observed at the café: persons who had been interrupted were twice as likely to recall what they had been doing as those who had completed their task.
So, what’s the story behind the phenomenon? The phenomena was described by Zeigarnik as a sign of “psychic tension,” a word that owed a lot to her Gestalt psychology background and the fact that it was the 1920s. Today, experts believe it has to do with how our brain handles memory. According to Kendra Cherry of VeryWellMind, “the Zeigarnik effect exposes a great deal about how memory works.”
“When information is observed, it is frequently maintained in sensory memory for only a short period of time. “We shift information into short-term memory when we pay attention to it,” she writes. “Many of these short-term memories fade away rapidly, but some of this information can be moved into long-term memory through the process of active rehearsal.” In other words, the Zeigarnik Effect is similar to an automatic mental to-do list: incomplete activities remain in our minds, always filling our short-term memory because we keep refreshing the timer on them.
However, after those chores are completed, they are crossed out — we cease returning to them, and our short-term memory simply forgets about them. Now that we know what’s going on, we can take advantage of it. “When we’re presented with a major task that we’re trying to avoid commencing, procrastination bites hardest,” stated Jeremy Dean, a psychologist and creator of PsyBlog.
“It might be that we don’t know where to begin or how to begin,” he said. “The Zeigarnik effect suggests that one weapon against procrastination is to start someplace… somewhere.” “Don’t start with the most difficult part; instead, start with something simple.” “If you can just get started on any component of a project, the rest will usually fall into place,” he wrote. The Zeigarnik effect is even stronger under particular circumstances: we’re better at returning to finish jobs when we know what needs to be done, according to research.
“The greatest method [to write] is always to stop when you are doing well and when you know what will come next,” Ernest Hemingway reportedly suggested. You will never be stuck if you do it every day while writing a novel.” When it comes to studying, the Zeigarnik effect may be really beneficial. “Many students may believe it ideal to cram just before their examinations, attempting to acquire as much material as possible in a short amount of time,” Stephanie Wright of PsychCentral stated. “However, the Zeigarnik effect suggests that breaking up your study time into smaller sessions over a longer period of time may be preferable.”
But, perhaps most importantly, the Zeigarnik effect may be used to improve our mental health. When you comprehend that unfinished projects will loom big in your thoughts until they’re done, you recognize that starting a new project before the previous one is finished will just add to your mental anguish. So construct a to-do list, start with the simple tasks, and maximize the Zeigarnik effect.