The Zeigarnik Effect

I’m always amazed when a waiter takes my order without writing anything down. I’m a vegetarian, and occasionally I ask for substitutions with my order. My wife absolutely loves to make substitutions, and when our order is transformed into food 20 minutes later, I’m blown away when it comes through 100% accurate. It’s most shocking when I’m in a big group, and the waiter can keep a dozen orders straight and remember where everyone was seated at the table. This also shocked Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian researcher who wrote about it in her Ph.D. thesis in 1927.

Zeigarnik noticed that waiters could more accurately recall complex orders that were incomplete, than they could orders that had been completed. It seems that there is something about the act of completing a tasks that tells our brain that we can forget about it. The tendency of people to accurately remember details of uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks is known today as the Zeigarnic effect.

There is a similar effect called the Ovsiankina effect that states that people are likely to resume interrupted tasks at their next possible opportunity. This is the effect that causes an insatiable desire to watch the next episode or read the next chapter after a cliffhanger ending. Maria Ovsiankina was also from Russia and was a colleague of Zeigarnik at the University of Berlin in the 1920’s.

Together, these two effects can empower people to push towards any goal if they properly start upon them. Think about the last time that you procrastinated on a daunting task. It was easy to postpone starting the task. But as soon as you initiated it, you had a newfound drive to complete the task, even if you took breaks.

This recently happened to me. I had been intending for months to write a few letters to my missionary friends abroad, but never got around to starting it. On a Friday evening, I got together with some of my friends at Stanford, and we wrote a pile of letters for these missionaries. All that remained to do was to put postage on them and to mail them. Suddenly, my academic quarter got really busy. Had I not already started this task, I likely would have never got around to sending the letters during the busy half of the quarter, but because I had a stack of letters in my apartment, my brain drove me nuts telling me I had to finish sending the letters.

Now if you’re a procrastinator, all of this is good news for you. If you have a daunting task that you need to get done, the Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects say that if you start a task and get deep enough into it, your brain is going to make finishing those tasks as attractive as possible. This is one of the best ways that I know of to fight procrastination, short of blackmailing yourself, which I have written about before here.

Next week, I’ll discuss a hybrid technique that combines these psychology hacks with Pareto’s principle in a technique a friend of mine coined “Float Your Projects.”