This is a cool story. A Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, noticed while she was in a restaurant that waiters could remember orders that hadn't been fill yet but forgot them once they had been. Zeigarnik did a series of experiments and "concluded that the “recall-value” of unfinished tasks is high because it’s human nature to complete a task we’ve already started."
Sounds Like A Story
Personally, I wonder if the concept of "story" is a factor here. Story is a huge presence in our lives, and we desire to see a story completed. If you think of a "task" as a "story," an uncompleted task becomes an unfinished story. The person who hasn't completed the task is left hanging. In fact, TV cliffhangers and Charles Dickens' serial writing have been described as examples of the Zeigarnik Effect at work. The viewer/reader must come back for more, because the story isn't done.
What Does This Have To Do With Managing Our Time?
Supposedly the Zeigarnik Effect can help procrastinators because once they make themselves start a project, they're likely to finish it. The Zeigarnik Effect makes it difficult for you to let go of something you've started. "Knowing that your brain will nag you to complete it should make it easier to dive in."
I have my doubts about that. If the Zeigarnik Effect worked all that well, there wouldn't be hard drives and filing cabinets filled with unfinished manuscripts, basements and spare bedrooms wouldn't be filled with unfinished craft and DIY projects, and there would be none of those weird half-finished bridges and highways to nowhere. I wonder if the Zeigarnik Effect isn't more of a factor with shorter- term tasks--like filling a meal order--then long-term ones that could take weeks, months, or years to complete--like writing a book.
What's more, the Zeigarnik Effect may be more about memory than it is about procrastination or managing time. A later study also suggests that motivation plays a hand in how well the Zeigarnik Effect works.
However, if you want to see if the Zeigarnik Effect has an impact on your work or is something that could have an impact on your work, consider the following:
- How are you about completing your shorter tasks? Personally, I'll go into contortions to finish a blog post. I'm also obsessed with the CCLC. This may be the Zeigarnik Effect at work. Keep ZE in mind when you need to get started on something short. Starting it may very well mean that you have to finish.
- Some proponents of the Zeigarnik Effect suggest using what I call the Unit System to break your work time up into small units. Presumably each unit of time becomes a task which, once begun, you will feel you have to finish. As you knock off more and more units, you get more and more deeply into the larger task. Theoretically, at some point your mind sees the big task as the uncompleted task and will want to keep going.
- Warning: Remember completion bias "