Procrastination is the enemy of productivity. We’ve all had the task, project, errand from hell that never seems to end. What makes it even worse is the fact that you continually remember that incomplete task, and it gnaws away at you. Do you know why we seem to always remember these incomplete tasks? Well, the answer is the Zeigarnik Effect. Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik of the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology found that people tend to remember incomplete rather than completed tasks. She observed waiters who could remember myriad orders, but later could not even remember what party placed the order. This finding showed that the brain loves completed tasks, and hates unfinished, or incomplete tasks. This effect has been used over and over by marketers who love leaving you with a cliffhanger. Like the TV show that ends with a “to be continued,” or a deceptive subject line in an email that reveals a tiny bit about it’s contents, but not enough to provide a complete message.
How Can You Use The Zeigarnik Effect to Improve Productivity?
I am a big fan of David Allen and one of his main premises is the concept of “open loops,” which are basically unfinished tasks that your brain continually remembers and gnaws away at your cognitive capacity. Remembering all your incomplete tasks can be very demanding for your brain!
If you recall that you brain hates unfinished tasks, like finishing an email, getting that appointment made, finishing that last bit of the errand, a good way to use the Zeigarnik effect is to break the task into smaller tasks or pieces and just complete that piece. For instance if you need to plan a vacation, there are a number of tasks that need to be done…book flights, book a hotel, plan activities, get a visa, book the rental car, etc. Well if you have a master project, but create separate tasks for each piece, your brain will stop remembering the completed tasks and you will free up cognitive energy to focus on the next upcoming tasks. You’ll be that much closer to planning the entire trip. A lot of times just thinking about a huge project can be overwhelming, which causes us to procrastinate because we simply don’t know where to start. If you develop a plan and break the project up into many smaller tasks, your brain will be pleased after each small task is completed and you will get past the procrastination hurdle quicker!