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Why Your Brain Dwells on Unfinished Tasks

https://hbr.org/2020/10/why-your-brain-dwells-on-unfinished-tasks

hbr.org

Why Your Brain Dwells on Unfinished Tasks
And what you can do about it.

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The brain is obsessed with unfinished tasks

The brain is obsessed with unfinished tasks

When we have unfinished tasks, we think about them continuously. But the moment they are completed, we forget about them. If we have unread email, we constantly wonder what it says. But once it has been dealt with, we often cannot recall the details of it.

The name for this phenomena is called the Zeigarnik effect and named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.

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Incomplete tasks: What happens inside the brain

Once our brain receives information, it temporarily stores sensory memory (sight, hearing, smells, taste, and touch). If we pay attention to the information, it moves to our short-term memories.

If the task is incomplete, our brains can't let it go until it's done. That is why TV dramas use cliffhangers to end episodes.

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How to capitalize on the Zeigarnik effect

  • Reduce your tendency to procrastinate. If you have a task you've been avoiding, begin with the smallest thing to be done. The desire to close the loop will help you take small steps to get it done.
  • Get people to take note of what you're saying. Try using ellipses instead of a full stop in your headline so that your reader will feel like "there's more to this."
  • Memorize more information. Break your information up into parts. Or spread your learning over several days.
  • Remember difficult names. Learn one part of the name, then come back to the second part when your done memorizing the first.

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The Zeigarnik Effect

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The Zeigarnik effect and memory

It reveals a great deal about how memory works. Zeigarnik suggested that failing to complete a task creates underlying cognitive tension. This results in greater mental effort and rehearsal in order to keep the task at the forefront of awareness. Once completed, the mind is then able to let go of these efforts.

You can even use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage.

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  • If you are struggling to memorize something important, momentary interruptions might actually work to your advantage. While you are focusing on other things, you will find yourself mentally returning to the information you were studying.

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The Mere Urgency Effect

This bias addresses why we do unimportant tasks we think are time-sensitive over tasks that are not time-sensitive, even if the non-time-sensitive tasks provide greater rewards.

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  • Use the Eisenhower Matrix. It will reveal the urgent/not urgent and important/not important tasks.
  • Block off on your calendar the most productive 2-4 hours each day for your most important work.
  • Only answer emails at specific times. Don't allow email to bleed into other time.
  • Give your important tasks a deadline and find a way to commit to it.

The Zeigarnik Effect

This effect describes our tendency to remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Each unfinished task takes up some of your attention, splitting your focus. It also interferes with your sleep.

What you can do about it:

  • Write your tasks down as soon as they come to you.
  • Have a system in place for organizing and regularly reviewing your tasks.
  • Have an end of work shutdown ritual, so your unfinished tasks don't stay in your mind after-hours.
  • Take a small step to help you get started. The act of starting can help you keep going to the end.
  • Don't forget to review your completed tasks and celebrate what you've already accomplished.

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Studies show that our mind performs better when we use written to-do lists. Here are some ways to make them more effective:

  1. List entries should be detailed, having a clear purpose.
  2. Paper and pen lists, preferably in a dairy, work best.
  3. Make the work schedule realistic, factoring in all the time that is wasted gossiping or on social media.
  4. Do not list heavy, unworkable projects(A: Climb Mount Everest) as they would never be done. Break them into small, actionable items.