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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 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.

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.

Deepstash helps you become inspired, wiser and productive, through bite-sized ideas from the best articles, books and videos out there.

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IDEAS

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.

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.

  • 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.

Why We Love The To-Do List

The To-Do list is almost a sacred technique of organizing your day and eventually your life. They lessen the day’s anxiety, provide a structure to power-through and are written proof of our productivity.

As the Zeigarnik Effect proves, we obsess over unfinished tasks and remember stuff which is incomplete or pending. The To-Do list comes to the rescue and saves us from a lot of stress.

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.

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.

We tend to choose a smaller, immediate reward over a larger reward in the future. For example, playing video games is more enjoyable than writing or coding or designing.

What you can do about it:

  • Help your future self. Automate your savings; lock yourself out of your social media apps and websites at certain times of the day.
  • Find ways to make the "right" thing more pleasant. Do exercise you actually enjoy; find healthy recipes that are also delicious.
  • Reframe how you think. Enjoy the process rather than only focusing on the rewards. Instead of running to lose weight, focus on the satisfaction you get after running a mile.
  • Imagine your future self to help motivate you to choose longer-term payoffs.

We want to finish what we've started because of previously invested resources, even if it is better to quit and use our limited resources elsewhere for better returns.

What you can do about it:

  • Every decision has two costs. The first is the actual amount of money, time, or energy, and the second is the benefit you would have gotten from the next best alternative.
  • Do a quarterly inventory of your commitments. Decide if continuing a goal or commitment is worth it.
  • Ask yourself if you were just starting this endeavour today, would you still do it?

We tend to underestimate the time it will take to complete a future task despite knowing that previous tasks have taken longer.

What you can do about it:

  • Break projects down into smaller parts and estimate how long each will take.
  • Add 20% to your project timeline. Finishing earlier than expected is better than being surprised by it.
  • Use historical data to make better predictions.
  • Limit the scope of the work. It means leaving off some things for a later stage.
  • When you're going to miss a deadline, communicate that early and often.

We quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite positive or negative external events. We pursue a promotion and believe it will make us happy. When we get it, we are temporarily happier, only to get back to our baseline levels the next week.

How to overcome it:

  • Set many smaller goals instead of one big one that can only give you a one-time bump in happiness.
  • Enjoy the process, not just the outcome. If you're trying to lose weight, savour the satisfaction of feeling fitter, not just hitting your ideal weight.
  • The outcome won't make you happier, but the act of showing up regularly can.
  • Pursue strong social connections. Studies find that it is the strongest predictor of long-term happiness.

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.

How to overcome this bias:

  • 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.

We are inclined to believe that complex solutions and explanations are better than simple ones. The perception of complexity often leads to avoidance.

What you can do about it:

  • Instead of seeking to understand a concept fully, opt for action. Try things, see how they work, then slowly improve over time.
  • Choose the system you'll stick with long-term. Look for strategies that will work with your natural ability, even if they are not the most effective.
  • Apply Occam's Razor to counterbalance the complexity bias. When faced with two possible explanations for the same evidence, the one with the fewest assumptions is likely true.
We All Tend To Make The Same Mental Mistakes

Economists used to believe that people will always choose the option that maximizes their well-being. But people act against their rational self-interest all the time.

We procrastinate and eat junk food and say yes to the things we don't have time for. Two Israeli psychologists found that we predictably make the same mental mistakes that can be avoided if we are aware of them.

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