Zeigarnik Effect: A Counterintuitive Approach to Boost Your Productivity
The Zeigarnik effect is what happens when the brain can more easily recall an activity that has been interrupted.
Interestingly, the Zeigarnik effect is based on something that KosmoTime is designed to protect you against— interruptions.
So, it may seem strange and counterintuitive that I’d want to devote an entire blog post to a topic like this.
But hear me out.
Understanding the Zeigarnik effect and its implications can help refine your approach to productivity so you can get more done.
Let me show you how.
Origins of the Zeigarnik Effect
Believe it or not, the Zeigarnik effect stemmed from something rather mundane — observing the ability of waiters to remember orders and unpaid bills of patrons. This was back in 1927, before waitstaff and kitchens used high-tech order processing techniques.
In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was attending the University of Berlin.
She was a total badass, collecting degrees, awards, publications, and honors like nobody’s business.
Essentially, she created an entirely new field in the arena of psychology.
One day, she was dining at a nearby cafe and noticed that the waiters were able to remember complex orders and unpaid tabs with relative ease.
But once the meals had been served and paid for, the waiters were no longer able to recall the information.
So, within a span of just 20 or 30 minutes, waiters went from having amazing memory recall abilities to hardly being able to remember anything.
Brain function: delete.
Zeigarnik was intrigued and decided to perform in-depth research to better understand this phenomenon and what was going on.
To do this, she had a group of 138 kids participate in an experiment where they performed a series of basic tasks, puzzles, and math problems.
Zeigarnik had them perform half of the tasks before intentionally interrupting them while they were completing the rest of the tasks.
And what she found was interesting.
110 of the 138 kids were able to recall the interrupted tasks more easily than the completed tasks — nearly 80%.
Zeigarnik also conducted a similar experiment with adults and found that an even higher number (90%) were able to recall unfinished tasks better than completed ones.
In other words, the vast majority of people — both children and adults — were able to recall information more easily when they were interrupted.
Definition of the Zeigarnik Effect
In terms of a formal definition, I like this one from social psychologists Baumeister & Bushman the best.
“The Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete.”
“The automatic system signals the conscious mind, which may be focused on new goals, that a previous activity was left incomplete. It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”
In simple terms, our brains are wired for the completion of tasks and to see them through until the end.
Whenever there’s an uncompleted task, it tends to stay on our mind until we finish it.
And once it’s done, we move onto the next thing.
For more details on what the Zeigarnik effect is and the logic that goes into, check out this quick video from Valorian.
How the Zeigarnik Effect Can Boost Productivity
That sounds good and all, but what exactly does this mean from a productivity standpoint?
You can use the Zeigarnik effect to avoid procrastination and propel yourself to finish a task more quickly.
“The Zeigarnik effect suggests that not finishing a task creates mental tension, which keeps it at the forefront of our memory,” writes Sarah Young of The Independent. “The only thing that will relieve this tension? Closure brought on by completion of the task.”
This is actually something that’s used all of the time on TV series in the form of cliffhangers.
At the very end of an episode, you’re left with a closing scene where you’re dying to know what happens next.
Episode 8, season 5 of Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” is a great example.
In the final scene, Walter White’s brother-in-law Hank makes the startling realization that Walter is the notorious drug lord he’s been chasing.
The screen then fades to black, and viewers are left gasping and wondering what will happen during the next half of the season.
So, naturally, they bingewatch.
At the end of the day, the Zeigarnik effect is all about completing a task to find closure.
And this can give you a massive advantage if you struggle with procrastination or just want to be more productive.
Giving Yourself the Necessary Motivation
It all boils down to one thing — motivation.
Understanding the phenomenon behind the Zeigarnik effect can help you provide yourself with the motivation you need to get tasks done without “dillydallying.”
And it’s dead simple. Just get started.
“When we start something, we are more inclined to finish it,” says time management expert, speaker, and author, Jones Loflin. “It really doesn’t matter where we start. Even doing the easiest parts can provide the motivation to continue to completion.”
That’s because having an unfinished task will stay on our mind until we complete it.
Although it’s consuming cognitive energy and bothering us, which is unpleasant, this can provide the incentive needed to get after it and ultimately get it done.
Or as Loflin adds, “Our minds will continue to poke us at every opportunity to go finish it.”
But once we’re done, we’ll have closure and can finally relax, while relishing in the fact that we’ve been productive.
When you look at it like this, you can see why the Zeigarnik effect can be so powerful and an approach that’s perfect for chronic procrastinators.
Taking the First Step
And here’s the beautiful thing about this approach.
You don’t need to take a deep dive into a task to make it work.
Even if the first step is small, it should still create the spark needed to get you moving, providing you with critical momentum.
Once you’ve gotten started, the task will naturally occupy your thoughts, where you’ll keep thinking about it until it’s done.
It’s this “dissonance” or tension that will light a fire under you and put you on the path of completing the task.
And it kills two birds with one stone because the feeling of accomplishment you get after finishing the job gives you even more positive momentum, which can carry over into future tasks.
So, while at first glance, the Zeigarnik effect may seem counterintuitive because it’s creating stress and forcing you to use mental energy, it’s clear that it can be highly beneficial in the long run, when used correctly.
Using KosmoTime in Conjunction with the Zeigarnik Effect
At this point, I’ve established how this phenomenon works and the impact it can have.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to offer some actionable advice on how to practically implement it and take full advantage.
One specific technique is to use a time blocking app, like KosmoTime to set goals and track your time.
This is done by organizing tasks into sprints, where you set aside time in your calendar to devote to tasks.
Let’s say, for example, you need to prepare for a new product launch.
With KosmoTime, you can block off a certain chunk of time that you spend solely on that task.
Creating a sprint like this helps you get the ball rolling and prevents you from getting into the “I’ll get to it later” mindset.
As I just discussed, just getting started is an integral part of the Zeigarnik effect.
Once you’ve taken the first step, the task should stay on your mind until you complete it.
And KosmoTime takes it one step further by also helping you block distractions that could get in the way when you’re focusing on a task.
If the first phase of preparing a product launch involved reviewing editorial guidelines and brand voice, you could start that task, which would shut down all of your other tabs, allowing you to focus 100%.
If you stray and try to open another URL, KosmoTime will bring up a screen that asks if it’s part of your task or not.
If it is part of your task, you simply click “Yes, let me in.”
But if it’s not, and it’s only going to distract you, you click on “Cancel.”
Whenever you’re done and satisfied, just click on “Reopen my tabs,” and you can carry on as normal.
This way Kosmo keeps you on the straight and narrow and ensures you don’t get sucked down the distraction rabbit hole.
And besides just preventing this immediate distraction, it helps you become more cognizant of your habits, helping instill more self-discipline.
Over time, this puts you on track to becoming the equivalent of a Shaolin productivity warrior, which don’t actually exist but we can pretend.
Other Helpful Techniques
Besides using a tool like KosmoTime to rev up your productivity and avoid procrastination, there are two other techniques I recommend.
The 90/20 Productivity Rule
One is to use the 90/20 rule, which involves working intently on a task for 90 minutes, and then taking a 20 minute break.
This is based around recurring ultradian rhythms that allow you to work with and not against your natural energy cycles.
The key is to have intensely hyper-productive periods followed by regenerative downtime so that you’re able to work with a consistently high level of energy without becoming fatigued.
I’ve done a ton of experimentation with the 90/20 rule and can say with confidence that it’s genuinely helpful and keeps me from getting burned out.
So, whenever there’s a specific task that demands your attention, I suggest using this approach to plow through it.
The Pomodoro Technique
The other strategy is the Pomodoro Technique, which is where you break the 90/20 rule down into multiple manageable chunks.
Here you work on a task for 25 minutes (called a “Pomodoro”), then take a five minute break.
After you’ve had some time to chill out, you repeat the process, where you do another Pomodoro followed by another five minute break.
Repeat this process three times until you’ve reached a total of 90 minutes, then take a longer 20 minute break like I just discussed with the 90/20 rule.
Check out this guide from productivity coach Francesco Cirillo for the full scoop on the Pomodoro Technique.
Intentionally leave a task unfinished
Sometimes, it’s smart to leave a task unfinished.
Due to the Zeigarnik effect, your brain will more easily recall the information that you left in limbo, so to speak.
Some writers and novelists stop their work in mid-sentence, forcing them to think deeply on the next movement in their writing.
The most famous example of this is Ernest Hemingway.
I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. — Ernest Hemingway
YCombinator contributor, “Alf,” writes this about what he refers to as “The Hemingway Trick.”
The Hemingway Trick: Stop in the middle. Never stop working at the natural barriers. They next time you start working, the barrier will be the first thing you encounter, and you won’t have the momentum to overcome it.
Try to stop writing mid-chapter, or mid-sentence (or mid function). Know how to finish, but stop working.
The next time you start, you know exactly what needs to be done. There will even be the urge to start working to finish the unfinished.
Nearing the end of a unproductive [sic] day, accept that the day was not productive, start on what you will work on tomorrow, do a little, and stop in the middle.
LifeHacker writer Kevin Purdy swears by this technique to defeat writer’s block.
One writer, by way of a Hemingway quote, found that stopping mid-sentence left her mental engine primed for the next session.
You may not be Hemingway, attempting to write the next For Whom the Bell Tolls, but you are a professional, attempting to handle multiple tasks and cognitive demands.
So how can you use this technique?
Let Thorny Issues Remain Unsolved
One way to use the Zeigarnik effect to maximum potential is to let a thorny issue just lay there, exposed and ugly.
Don’t try to solve it. Don’t try to remove it.
Just leave it alone.
Take a nap. Go to bed. Play a game of chess. Prepare some fettuccini, whatever.
Then come back to the Thorny Issue and take a stab at it.
Chances are, because you’ve let your brain’s talons free from the issue for a while, you’ll come back to it with more freshness and a likely solution.
This happened just last night. All day, I was struggling with a marketing conundrum involving a double-sided marketplace.
I went to bed around 9pm. (I go to bed early.)
I woke up at 3am with the answer, wrote it down, and went back to sleep.
Thomas Edison famously said, ““Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”
There’s something valuable in letting an issue alone, unsolved, and coming back to it with a fresh approach when your subconscious has had a go at it.
Your subconscious keeps working on issues, even while you’re sleeping, showering, or lathering your savory sauce over steaming fettuccini.
Thank you, Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik.
I know I’ve thrown a lot at you, but it’s pretty simple when you break it all down.
The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological phenomenon that was revealed in the 1920s by Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik, illustrating that our brains continually remind us whenever there’s an unfinished task.
Once that task is done, however, we tend to quickly forget it and move onto other things.
And that’s quite a breakthrough in terms of preventing procrastination, and has taught us that getting started on a task basically forces us to keep working on it until it’s completed.
Although the mental energy that’s used and the lack of closure can be unpleasant, it serves as a strong motivator that can fire up even the worst of procrastinators.
It’s just a matter of using the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage.
The bottom line is that whenever you need to get something done, simply getting started is often all it takes.
Then, your mind will keep “poking you” to wrap it up.
To streamline things even more and put yourself in the best position possible, you can use a tool like KosmoTime to create sprints and prevent distractions.
And to capitalize on natural energy cycles and minimize fatigue, you can use strategies like the 90/20 rule and Pomodoro Technique.
Doing so should help you step your game up even more and prevent you from becoming mentally fried.
Zeigarnik Effect FAQs
What is the Zeigarnik effect?
It’s a psychological phenomenon where humans experience intrusive thoughts about a task that was started but hasn’t been completed.
Who discovered it?
Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik
When was it discovered?
How can the Zeigarnik effect help boost your productivity?
It can help you overcome procrastination by simply beginning a task.
That’s because once you’ve started something, you’ll feel naturally compelled to finish it and will experience cognitive tension until you’ve done so.
What are some tools and techniques that can assist in the process?
- A time blocking app, like KosmoTime
- The 90/20 rule
- The Pomodoro Technique
- Leaving an incomplete task and returning to it later
It’s funny how a psychology student observing cafe waiters in Berlin nearly 100 years ago could impact the way we approach productivity today.
But the Zeigarnik effect has provided a window into how the human mind works, and when leveraged correctly, can help you beat procrastination with one simple trick.
Once you do that, you should find yourself thinking of it until it’s finished, thereby raising your productivity.
Learn more about KosmoTime and see how it can help you stay on track, while becoming a productivity zen master.
Seriously, just try it.