Have you ever been bugged by an incomplete or interrupted task that keeps popping into your thoughts? Or felt the need to keep reading a book you’ve nearly finished, or tune in to the next episode of a TV program that finished on a cliffhanger?
If so, you’ve experienced the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’, a phenomenon first reported in the 1920s by Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. She noted that restaurant waiters seemed to have an uncanny ability to remember complex orders whilst the food is being prepared and served, but couldn’t recall anything about the order once the diners had paid. She theorised that they kept the information in their short term memory and unconsciously erased it when it was no longer useful, never having made it as far as their long term memory.
Developments from Zeigarnik’s early experiments showed that if people are interrupted during a task and can’t ‘close it off’, it takes considerable mental effort to keep the information in short term memory until the task can be resumed. We can try to commit the detail to long term memory, but it has a habit of popping back into our consciousness as our brains don’t have the ability to set reminders, so we’re doomed to keep rehearsing the task in our head. The more incomplete tasks we have rumbling around in our heads, the worse it gets.
The combination of the Zeigarnik Effect’s mental taxation and our natural tendency to catastrophize (imagining worst-case scenarios the more we think about something) can have significant negative consequences for our mental capacity and wellbeing. In short, stress levels go up and mental capacity goes down until we get closure.
The flip side is the relief and satisfaction felt when we complete a task. We can literally clear our heads of the now irrelevant and unnecessary detail.
The simplest solution to avoiding the cognitive tension is to only start tasks you know you can complete in a reasonable timeframe, or break them into sub-tasks, before starting something new.
If you can’t complete the task or don’t have time, then make a plan and set a reminder. Get it out of your short term memory so you can relax knowing how and when you’ll get to it.
You can also harness the Zeigarnik effect to motivate yourself. Just getting started can be the most difficult part of any task, but once you’re underway the need to finish what you’ve started can power you through.
Published in Shetland Life magazine in September 2019