This Little-Known Psychological Phenomenon is Affecting Your Productivity

The Zeigarnik effectRachel Futterman/Hive

It’s Thursday morning and you have a report due on Friday. You start working on it, then realize that you have a meeting with your team. After the meeting, your coworker invites you to grab lunch. Your unfinished report is in the back of your mind during the entire lunch, and you are feeling anxious to get back to your desk and finish it. This psychological phenomenon is called the Zeigarnik effect.

What is the Zeigarnik effect?

Simply put, the Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to remember uncompleted tasks more than finished ones.

“The effect relates to four important workplace factors: motivation, learning, memory and task completion. In part, the effect is thought to be of evolutionary benefit, as our brains flag items that need to be completed–thus ensuring our survival,” explains Dr. Joseph Michelli, a psychologist, organizational consultant and New York Times #1 Bestselling Author who has authored 10 McGraw-Hill business books related to consumer behavior and customer experience excellence.

According to Michelli, the Zeigarnik effect is powerful because our perceptions and memory tend to fill-in gaps. “If I were to start to draw a circle but not finish it, your brain would likely perceive it as a completed circle. In essence, your brain works for perceptual closure,” he says. “If we want people to remember important concepts, we can frame those concepts in the form of questions or challenges, which pushes their brains to close the loop and keep the concept top of mind.”

In other words, the Zeigarnik effect causes you to have lingering thoughts about deliverables you have yet to finish because your brain is looking for closure.

How to leverage the Zeigarnik effect for productivity

Now that you are aware of the fact that there are cognitive and behavioral forces that influence your productivity and to-do list, you can leverage the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage. “Many people experience the intrusive thoughts that come with an unfinished or interrupted task, but there are many personal benefits to be gained if individuals learn to effectively channel these thoughts and the internal desire to get the job done,” according to a GoodTherapy article.

So the first thing you want to do is avoid procrastination, as it will only cause you mental distress and affect your productivity negatively. “In a practical sense, the Zeigarnik effect explains why it’s best not to procrastinate on important tasks (because our brains ruminate about unfinished business),” says Michelli.

And, if you tend to multitask, awareness of the Zeigarnik effect can convince you to close all your browser tabs and focus on one task at a time. “A thorough understanding of the cognitive intrusions accompanying uncompleted tasks will help workers appreciate that each new task is essentially an interruption of what was previously being done,” shares GoodTherapy.

By choosing to focus on a single task, you are reducing cognitive overload and attacking one unfinished task at a time to clear mental space for the next one.

Additionally, you can trick your brain into constantly innovating thanks to the Zeigarnik effect. “My main tip is to continually ask, What else can I do? If we conclude that a project is done, that project fades from memory. If, however, we want to continue to iterate or innovate, we need to view the project as incomplete–so our brains push to solve the mystery, quandary or challenge,” explains Michelli.

There is one more important thing to keep in mind. The Zeigarnik effect can increase feelings of self-doubt and even exacerbate impostor syndrome, says Jeffrey M. Gabriel, co-founder of Saw, a domain brokerage service.

“In addition to the panic created by having unfinished tasks potentially exposed by managers, workers often feel that they’re not doing their best, which can impact feelings of self-doubt,” says Gabriel. “In fact, the Zeigarnik effect and impostor syndrome may be interlinked. We put an extra emphasis on work we don’t finish, which makes our ‘failures’ seem to stand out more. Surely, we think, a real employee (a non-imposter) wouldn’t remember so many incomplete tasks.”

This subtle factor is, therefore, crucial to be aware of because low self-esteem in the workplace leads to decreased performance. Now that you know that the Zeigarnik effect is a universal human tendency, you can remind your inner critic that everyone experiences feelings of overwhelm around incomplete tasks and that it’s not a reflection of your abilities.

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