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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The Zeigarnik Effect

Unfinished work continues to exert an influence, even when we try to move on to other things.

When you start working on something but do not finish it, thoughts of the unfinished work continue to pop into your mind even when you've moved on to other things. Such thoughts urge you to go back and finish it.

Books, video games and tv-series all take advantage of this effect.

  • Break up your study sessions rather than try to cram it all in the night before the test. By studying information in increments, you will be more likely to remember it until test day.
  • 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.

Take the first step, no matter how small. Once you've begun—but not finished—your work, you will find yourself thinking of the task until, at last, you finish it. 

This approach can not only help motivate you to finish, but it can also lead to a sense of accomplishment once you finally finish a job and are able to apply your mental energies elsewhere.

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It suggests that not finishing a task creates mental tension, which keeps it at the forefront of our memory. 

The only thing that will relieve this tension is the closure brought on by completion of the task.

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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.

Designate a place to add and organize your tasks that’s not your head: a pen-and-paper to-do list or a digital task manager like Todoist . By capturing tasks to come back to later, you can free your attention to focus on your immediate work, not remembering what you need to get done in the future.

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