HR & Personal Development

The Zeigarnik effect – you remember things better when you're interrupted

Are you also still thinking about that thing, you didn't finish yesterday? And are you wondering, why you've been following the same stupid TV-show for the past four years? There's a reason for why you do these seemingly random things. It is called the Zeigarnik effect.

Read on, and find out what the Zeigarnik effect is and get four tips on how to use it every day to become more productive.

How the Zeigarnik effect was discovered

In 1927 Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, visited at a café in Vienna. During her visit she noticed that the waiters remembered every order that was still being served. The completed orders, however, vanished from their memory. In order to examine this experience she tested it on her students. They were instructed to solve a range of different tasks, such as doing a puzzle and putting pearls on a string. Some tasks they were allowed to finish, others, she interrupted when they were the most engaged with them. Afterwards, it turned out that the students were twice as good at remembering the unfinished tasks compared to the ones they'd finished.

Why it works

Based on the tests Zeigarnik concluded that we remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones, because our brains have a fundamental need of completing any assignment we've been given. Or put in another way: Unfinished assignments create a sort of tension that wants to be relieved, and in order of the releasement to occur we have to be able to remember the assignment. This need for completing is also the reason why we keep watching soap operas that end every episode with drama and excitement, thus capturing our attention and making us incapable of relaxing before the tension is released with the next episode.

How to use the Zeigarnik effect to become more productive

The Zeigarnik effect has various application possibilities other than merely making us watch the next episode of a TV-show. Here are four useful tips on how to use the Zeigarnik effect on your job.

  1. When we are working on a large task or project, we tend to focus on the hard parts and in that way put ourselves at risk of giving up, before having actually started. If you instead begin immediately before knowing the complete solution, you'll remember the task better and increase your chances of completing it.

  2. Make it a habit to use the Zeigarnik effect every day: Finish the day with an incomplete assignment. This means that you don't have to find the motivation for starting over next morning. Instead, you're able to begin the assignment where you left it the day before. As a bonus you can start your workday with the satisfaction of quickly finishing an assignment and gain a feeling of achievement.

  3. When you work on a large project, stop at a time where you would really like to continue and instead do something else. During your pause your subconscious mind will slowly begin to figure out how to complete the assignment. When you return, you'll be able to complete the assignment more efficiently than if you hadn't stopped.

  4. When you communicating with others, like doing a presentation or writing a sales pitch, you can maintain the interest of others by offering them teasers. In your presentation you could for instance say, “I want to show you three different ways of motivating yourselves, but first…”. In a written text you can do the same: “In a moment, I'll show you how to double your income without working more…” This way, you catch people's attention and keep it because they are unable to relax before hearing the conclusion.