The Zeigarnik effect, named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, refers to the tendency of the human mind to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. According to Zeigarnik's research in the 1920s, people have a better recollection of tasks that were started but not finished, compared to tasks that were completed. This occurs because an unfinished task creates tension and activation in the mind that makes details about the task more memorable. Once the task is completed, this tension is released and the details start fading from memory.
The Zeigarnik effect has important implications in our lives. It explains why we often feel bothered by unfinished projects and tend to procrastinate on completing tasks. However, instead of viewing it as an intrusion, we can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage in several ways.
Today we will summarize the key points about the Zeigarnik effect and provide detailed examples of how to harness it to become more productive, improve memorization, captivate audiences, and remember people's names.
Using Zeigarnik to Overcome Procrastination
One of the most common manifestations of the Zeigarnik effect is procrastination. When we put off finishing a task, it weighs on our mind more heavily compared to completed tasks. This underlying tension is what motivates us to eventually complete the task in order to get closure.
To overcome procrastination, we can use the Zeigarnik effect by intentionally leaving tasks unfinished. For example, when writing a long report, intentionally completing just the introduction and outline before taking a break. Since the incomplete report will occupy your mind more, you will be eager to return to it faster. Breaking large projects into smaller incomplete chunks makes them less overwhelming.
You can also combat procrastination by turning a long-term goal into a series of incomplete tasks. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, break it into smaller 5-pound milestones. Celebrate and reward each partial completion, while the unfinished goal continues motivating you. This way you get the satisfaction of progress plus the nagging of the Zeigarnik effect.
Improving Memorization with Zeigarnik
The Zeigarnik effect also has powerful implications for improving memory and recall. According to research, interrupted or incomplete tasks are remembered up to 90% better compared to completed tasks.
To harness this, when trying to memorize information like a speech, intentionally stop rehearsing before fully memorizing it. Your memory will subconsciously dwell on the unfinished rehearsal, helping you memorize the speech better for the next practice session.
You can also leverage the Zeigarnik effect when memorizing long lists or definitions. Memorize the first half of the list, then take a break. Your mind will retain that incomplete information better. Then memorize the full list during your next study session for optimal recall. Breaking the memorization into unfinished chunks capitalizes on the Zeigarnik effect.
Captivating Audiences with Zeigarnik
Speakers can also use the Zeigarnik effect to get audiences more engaged in their content. When giving a presentation, introduce topics but leave some points unfinished. You can tease future ideas without fully explaining them yet.
Since unfinished ideas create intrigue and tension, the audience will stay focused in anticipation of the complete details coming later. You can also share stories but leave out the endings to pique curiosity. Just be sure to satisfy the audience’s craving for closure eventually. Employing this effect strategically keeps them hooked from start to finish.
Remembering Names Using Zeigarnik
Finally, the Zeigarnik effect can be applied when you want to better remember someone’s name. When you first get introduced to someone, intentionally avoid repeating their name right away. That incomplete knowledge of their name will keep circulating in your mind, helping you solidify the memory.
You can also strengthen the Zeigarnik effect by associating the unfinished name with the person’s physical features or conversation details. This acts like a mental cue that keeps nagging you to fully complete the memory with their name. Once you finally do repeat their name out loud, the satisfaction of closure will lock it into your memory for good.
While the Zeigarnik effect can lead to procrastination and intrusive thoughts, we can take advantage of it to boost productivity, memory, public speaking skills, and relationship-building. By strategically interrupting tasks and leaving things partially unfinished, we can prime our minds to focus on processing and retaining the unfinished information. Completing the task then provides satisfying closure. With some diligence, we can use this quirk in human psychology to our benefit in various life and work domains. The key is transforming the Zeigarnik effect from a subconscious annoyance into a deliberate mental tool.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.