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Zeigarnik Effect: How Unfinished Tasks Ruin Your Evenings
And how to avoid it.
Imagine the situation:
You return home after a long day at work, but your mind is still filled with the unfinished tasks that await you the next day.
You try to relax, but these thoughts won’t let you go.
Rather than helping you recharge your batteries for a new day, your mind is spinning and ruining your evening!
If you’ve ever been in this situation, you’ve experienced the Zeigarnik effect.
Zeigarnik Effect: the tendency to remember an interrupted task better than a completed task.
This discovery was made by the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who gave her name to the phenomenon.
She came up with the theory while observing the behavior of waiters in a restaurant.
When the bill had not yet been paid, the waiters always remembered all the customers’ orders in detail.
But once payment had been received, they instantly forgot what the customer had ordered.
The young psychologist hypothesized that it’s easier to remember the details of an incomplete task than a completed one.
The 1927 experiment
To verify her intuition, Bluma Zeigarnik set up an experiment, the results of which were published in 1927.
In this study, she asked participants to solve cognitive problems such as puzzles and brainteasers.
She interrupted half the group in the middle of their thinking and let the others complete their exercises.
She then asked participants in both subgroups a series of questions to measure the details they could remember.
The result was surprising: the interrupted subgroup remembered 90% more details than those who had completed the tests, thus proving Zeigarnik’s theory on the memorization of interrupted tasks.
Although the Zeigarnik effect has been criticized by other researchers who have been unable to reproduce the same results, its effects can still be seen in everyday life.
Have you ever felt like you’d forgotten everything you’d learned after passing an exam?
The Zeigarnik effect is to blame.
As Bluma Zeigarnik has shown in another study, this effect can also be helpful.
For instance, students can use it to retain better what they have learned (by introducing voluntary interruptions).
However, its negative effects are more commonplace, particularly in the workplace.
The influence of the Zeigarnik effect on our work-life balance
Our brain is a problem-solving machine.
When we leave a task incomplete or are interrupted in its completion, a cognitive tension forms in our mind.
This tension will help our brain to memorize the details needed to solve the task later.
Whether we like it or not, this task will inhabit a part of our subconscious, a part of the brain we have no control over.
And most often, the subconscious is most active when relaxing, meaning after work.
Then, the classic pattern sets in:
You think about the task that needs to be done, which creates stress and the need to do something about it.
Feeling useless, you start working in the evening when your energy reserves are at their lowest.
But this doesn’t work, because without energy, you can’t really do quality work.
So you fall back on low-value tasks, such as going through your emails.
New problems arise, increasing your stress and wasting time that should have been spent resting.
The next day starts off badly because you’re not fully rested.
In the end, the task remains unfinished and even ruins your evening!
Yet this vicious circle can easily be avoided, and researchers have even proved it.
Overcoming the Zeigarnik effect with planning
In a paper published in 2011, researchers Roy Baumeister and E. J. Masicampo examined the Zeigarnik effect.
They began by replicating the 1927 experiment by asking a group to complete a list of tasks.
As you might guess, they interrupted some of the participants in order to generate the Zeigarnik effect.
They then discovered a simple solution to reduce the effect: asking the interrupted participants to create an action plan to complete the remaining tasks.
Planning the next steps allowed participants to free up more cognitive space to focus on other problems.
The researchers also observed that, for these people, the feeling of having achieved their goal increased.
What this experiment shows is particularly interesting for those who want to completely disconnect from their work to regain mental energy for the next day.
It suggests that it is possible to trick our brains into a sense of completion through planning.
To benefit from this method, the best is to establish a daily ritual at the end of your working day.
The anti-Zeigarnik ritual
In his book Deep Work, author Cal Newport describes a daily practice he uses to effectively combat the Zeigarnik effect.
He calls it the “Shutdown Ritual.”
To begin, you need to establish a routine lasting around 15 minutes at the end of your day.
During these 15 minutes, you’ll take the following four steps:
Review the tasks that couldn’t be completed today.
For each task, create an action plan. The plan doesn’t need to be massively detailed. The important thing is to define the following steps to be taken for each task.
Capture this plan in your organizational system (your “to-do list,” for example).
Say a ritual phrase like “Workday successfully completed.” This little trick may sound a bit cheesy, but believe me, it does relieve the mental pressure you can feel at the end of the day, and helps you switch off completely.
Once you’ve completed this ritual, don’t spend a single second on work-related subjects - it’s now time to recuperate your mental energy!
The Zeigarnik effect is omnipresent in our lives and, if left unchecked, can lead to burnout.
Like an addiction to completed tasks, this effect prevents us from resting and enjoying better mental capacities during working hours.
Yet a simple 15-minute ritual can free us from this effect and allow us to enjoy our evenings to the fullest.
To say goodbye to the Zeigarnik effect, all you have to do is plan ahead!
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