Boost your productivity with the Zeigarnik effect

Boost your productivity with the Zeigarnik effect

Illustration of increased productivity

You can increase your productivity by taking advantage of the Zeigarnik effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect describes how unfinished tasks stay active in our minds, intruding on our thoughts and sleep until they are processed, much like a hungry person will notice every restaurant and every appetizing smell on the way home, then lose interest when she’s had their dinner. You may have noticed the effect yourself during your exams at school, when you piled up before the exam, passed it, and then quickly forgot everything you had just learned because you no longer had any use for the information.

How it all began

The effect is named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist. According to the story, she was out for dinner one night at a restaurant in Berlin with a large group of colleagues when she noticed her waiter’s impressive ability to remember all of the complex food and drink orders. After everyone had finished eating and left the restaurant, Zeigarnik realized she had forgotten her purse, so she returned, found the waiter who had served them, and asked for his help. But he didn’t remember her; where was she sitting?

When she asked him how he could have forgotten about her so quickly, the waiter apologized and told her that he always forgets his orders (and customers) as soon as meals are delivered and paid for. The only way he could do his job was to focus exclusively on the open orders he still had to fulfill. This suggests that incomplete tasks remain in the mind until they are completed. Zeigarnik decided to investigate.

In a series of experiments[1] she asked different groups of children and adults to complete around 18 simple tasks, such as stringing beads, solving puzzles, solving math problems and folding paper. She allowed half of the participants to complete their tasks and interrupted the other half, asking them to move on. An hour later, she asked participants to describe what they had been working on. She found that those whose work was interrupted were about twice as likely to remember what they did as participants who actually completed the tasks.

His series of experiments also revealed some modifying factors: tasks that were interrupted in the middle or near the end were more likely to be recalled than those that were interrupted near the beginning, tasks that were experienced as difficult or beyond a person’s capacity have generally been overlooked. , and tired people were more likely to remember completed tasks. There were also significant differences between people’s performance, with those who were more “ambitious” – i.e. competitive – or more interested in the task at hand being better able to remember unfinished tasks and faster. to forget the tasks when they were finished.

The Zeigarnik effect was later studied by many other researchers who had varying degrees of success in replicating Zeigarnik’s findings. Forty years later, a review[2] of their research by American psychologist Earl Butterfield concluded that there did not appear to be a universal pattern of the ability to remember unfinished tasks, but that observed differences in outcomes were likely due to motivation.

Incomplete missing puzzle piece concept

The “psychic tension” of unfinished tasks can be used to improve memory.

How it works

Zeigarnik was supervised by legendary Gestalt psychotherapist Kurt Lewin and therefore heavily influenced by Gestalt theory. His hypothesis was that people are more likely to remember incomplete tasks because these unfinished undertakings stimulate “psychic tension” in them. The state of tension and the memory advantage of unfinished tasks remain while the person’s mental “need for completion” remains unmet. But once the task is completed, the psychic tension is relieved and the task can be purged from memory.

Current thinking is that the Zeigarnik effect is caused by how our memories work.

When information is perceived, it is stored in sensory memory for a very short period, ranging from a few milliseconds to five seconds. When we pay attention to it, it is transferred to short-term (working) memory, which is limited in both capacity and duration; we can only remember a certain number of things, and we must constantly repeat this information to retain them. So if you’re a waiter dealing with a lot of hungry customers, to do your job properly you have to keep your customers’ orders in mind until they finish their meals, until the bills are paid. and they left. Then you can forget everything.[3]

Hard work won success man

Understanding the Zeigarnik Effect and how it works gives you the ability to increase your productivity.

How to make it work for you

Once you understand how the Zeigarnik Effect works, you can use it to improve your productivity in several ways.

  1. Start somewhere…anywhere.

You know you have a week deadline and you are inclined to leave all of this until the 11th hour. Don’t. You just have to start somewhere. Block out 20-30 minutes of your time and get stuck. You don’t have to start with the most difficult; try something easy first. Once you start your task, no matter how small, it creeps into the back of your mind and pushes you to do a little more…and a little more…until it’s done.

You can also get the ball rolling by creating a brief outline of what you need to do. Recent research has shown that the motivation to accomplish an unfinished task is all the greater when we know what needs to be done to accomplish it. The authors called it the Hemingway Effect, after author Ernest Hemingway who, when asked in an interview, “How much should you write in a day?” replied, “The best way is always to stop when you are well and when you know what is going to happen next. If you do this every day when writing a novel, you will never get stuck.[4]

  1. Plan tactical breaks to improve information recall

The Zeigarnik Effect implies that taking breaks while working on something will increase our ability to retain information. To research[5] also shows that people who take breaks from their work – anywhere from five minutes to an hour – to do something completely different tend to focus better than those who try to cram their learning into one session.

So if you’re trying to study, spread the learning over several sessions. Rather than trying to skim through everything at once and browse through the same information over and over again, stop and walk away. According to Zeigarnik’s research, this should be when you’re “most engrossed.” While you are having a coffee or taking a walk, you will notice that your mind keeps returning to the information you were trying to understand. The break will give you time to reflect on what you’ve learned and consolidate your thoughts before resuming your study session, feeling fresh and focused.

  1. Set realistic goals

The Zeigarnik Effect can also help us understand and work within our limits. If you tend to keep too many balls in the air and you start to feel overwhelmed, knowing that intrusive thoughts tend to accompany unfinished tasks should help you understand that each new task is essentially an interruption of what you were doing before. This should motivate you to set reasonable limits on the amount of multitasking you attempt, increasing your job performance while reducing your frustration.

Knowing that this bias affects us all means you can remind your inner critic that anyone can feel overwhelmed with too many incomplete tasks, and that doesn’t reflect your abilities. And each time you successfully complete a task, you can bask in the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with your success and use the positive momentum to begin the next one.

  1. End the day with a to-do list

Thomas Edison said, “Never fall asleep without asking your subconscious mind.” But research also shows that worrying too much about unfinished business tends to lead to sleepless nights.[6] Fortunately, research has also found a way to help you disconnect: make a clear plan of what you have left to do.

A 2011 study[7] by EJ Masicampo and Roy Baumeister of[{” attribute=””>Florida State University showed that the mere act of planning how to do something frees us from the cognitive burden of unfinished tasks. In one of their experiments, students who were asked to think about an upcoming exam were unable to focus on a subsequent word completion task. Their minds kept wandering back to their looming exam. The effect was eliminated among participants who had been allowed to make a plan for when and how to study for the exam. In other words, not only did making a plan get someone further toward their goal, it also freed their cognitive resources for other pursuits.

Notably, neither group had actually done any studying for the exam. The Zeigarnik effect may be less an alarm that keeps chirping until a task is completed and more a prompt from our subconscious to urge us to make a plan. As soon as this plan is formed, the subconscious mind can stop harassing the conscious mind and allow it to relax until it’s time to resume the task as scheduled.

It’s important to make the plan specific. In another experiment, simply reflecting on the way they could fulfill their objectives did not stop participants from having intrusive thoughts about their goals. It was the participants who committed to a specific future course of action who enjoyed some peace of mind. Put differently, thinking “I should exercise” disturbs the unconscious mind because it calls attention to unmet goals and leaves the unconscious mind uncertain about how to proceed. But once the conscious mind articulates “I will go jogging tomorrow morning before work,” the unconscious knows precisely how to proceed and no longer needs to bother the conscious mind with intrusive thoughts about exercise.

When it comes to turning off thoughts of unfinished work, one way of achieving peace of mind would be to devote some time at the end of each day to review the day’s accomplishments and then to write down what more needs to be done, and how. But another way may be to delegate — thinking about how other people can help to reach a goal has been shown to reduce a person’s motivation to expend effort on that goal.[8] As long as the urgency of the goal is reduced and the need to act is delayed, intrusive thoughts can go away. Your subconscious loves it when a plan comes together. Yet it comes together.


  1. OnlineZeigarnik, B. (1927). Das Behalten erledigter unerledigter Handlungen [On finished and unfinished tasks]. Psychologische Forschung, 9 years old, 1-85.
  2. Butterfield, CE (1964). The interruption of tasks: methodological, factual and theoretical issues. Psychological Bulletin, 62(5), 309-322.
  3. Cascella M, Al Khalili Y. Short-term memory problems. [Updated 2022 Feb 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available at:
  4. Oyama, Y., Manalo, E. and Nakatani, Y. (2018). The Hemingway Effect: How not completing a task can have a positive effect on motivation. Thought and Creativity, 307-18.
  5. Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and infrequent mental “breaks” keep you focused: deactivating and reactivating task objectives prevents alertness lapses. Cognition, 118(3), 439-443.
  6. Syrek, CJ, Weigelt, O., Peifer, C., & Antoni, CH (2017). Zeigarnik’s sleepless nights: how unfinished tasks at the end of the week impair employees’ weekend sleep through rumination. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(2), 225-238.
  7. Masicampo, EJ and Baumeister, RF (2011). Consider it done! Making plans can eliminate the cognitive effects of unachieved goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 667-683.
  8. Fitzsimons, GM and Finkel, EJ (2011). Externalization of self-regulation. Psychological Sciences, 22(3), 369-375.

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