If Putting Things Off Until The Last Minute Is A Problem For You, The Zeigarnik Effect Might Help

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
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I have a huge to-do list. Maybe you do, too. (Let’s be real—you definitely do, too. Parenting in 2021 is one big to-do list.)

Some of the things on my to-do list are long-term to-dos, things that I need to get done eventually. They get rolled over from to-do list to to-do list. Sometimes I glance at them when I have a free moment, tell myself I should tackle this now to get it out of the way—and then I don’t.

The item sits on the to-do list until it’s no longer long-term, but a do-right-now-or-else item. Until it’s a scramble before paying a late fee, overdue, should-have-done-when-I-had-the-time item.

It’s procrastination to the nth degree, and most of us are guilty of it in one way or another.

But what if there was an easy way to stop procrastinating—to “trick” your brain into acting versus stalling?

Enter The Zeigarnik Effect

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The Zeigarnik Effect is a “psychological phenomenon describing a tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks or events more easily than tasks that have been completed,” according to GoodTherapy. It’s the idea that you’re more likely to get to work on a task that’s been interrupted rather than a task you haven’t even started because the interrupted task will keep intruding on your thoughts.

To activate the Zeigarnik Effect you have to start the task you’re putting off in some small way. If you have an essay, write the first line—even if you end up deleting that line from your work. If you have to clean the refrigerator, throw out one container of uneaten (never will be eaten) leftovers. A report—open a browser tab. Anything–as long as it’s a start to the task.

The Zeigarnik Effect suggests that this small start will now cause your brain to send you “mental pings” driving you to finish the thing you started due to the underlying “cognitive tension” created. The cognitive tension helps keep the task in the forefront of your thoughts. Once the tension is resolved, because the task is finished, the thoughts stop.

“It really speaks to this idea that our attention focuses on what’s half-finished, even what’s negative and what’s undone,” psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, M.D., author of Everyday Vitality, told Mindbodygreen on the mindbodygreen podcast.

The Zeigarnik Effect In Real Life

The Zeigarnik Effect is all around us. Teasers in headlines, cliffhangers on television shows, ongoing quests in video games are examples.

The Zeigarnik Effect was first noticed by Russian psychiatrist and psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik. She noticed waiters at a busy café had no trouble remembering complicated orders while they actively serving a table, but the moment the checks were paid, the waiters forgot specific details of those same orders.

In a series of experiments with children, Zeigarnik replicated what she’d noticed. She asked 138 children to complete a series of simple tasks. She interrupted them after they’d completed half the tasks. After an hour, 110 of the 138 children were better able to remember the interrupted tasks. A similar experiment in adults confirmed the results. 90 percent of the adults remembered the interrupted tasks better than the completed ones.

Motivation Matters, Too


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For procrastinators who tend to put off doing something until it feels stressful not to do it (present company included), the Zeigarnik Effect is one way to hack your brain, to stop the tendency toward procrastination.

Of course, it’s not a guarantee.

While Zeigarnik’s original study was reproduced with success, other studies have failed to confirm its validity. A variety of factors can impact how well the Zeigarnik Effect works for procrastination. Researchers have found that, in particular, motivation can impact how likely folks are to return to a task after they’ve been interrupted. One study found that of those who were interrupted during a task more were “motivated to continue if they [thought] they were close to finishing.”

There’s also always the possibility that those “mental pings” aren’t beneficial. For some, unfinished tasks may make them feel more anxious. Sure, your unfinished task is on your mind, and yes, maybe that drives you to finish it already, but each mental ping could be another notch on a rising stress level. None of us needs more stress.

Also, there’s no doubt a limit to the amount of unfinished tasks you can have going at any time before system overload—but maybe that’s just me. I tried to hack my brain using this method and by and large I ended up with a few dozen false starts, a dozen open browser tabs and word documents, and a load of anxiety.

As it turns out, like with so many brain hacks or life hacks, they only work if they work for you. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. But if, for you, starting a task is a step toward ensuring completion of that task, then the Zeigarnik Effect is worth a try.

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