What is the “Zeigarnik Effect” and how does it help you avoid distraction, focus and get things done?

I came to learn of the Ziegarnik Effect in PsyBlog.  In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik conducted a study in a busy restaurant in Vienna where she found that waiters remembered uncompleted orders or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.  This is described as the Zeigarnik Effect.  In 1982, almost 60 years later,  Kenneth McGraw conducted another study of the Zeigarnik Effect where the participants where asked to do a tricky puzzle; except they were interrupted before any of them could solve it – – and then they were told the study was over. Despite being asked to stop, nearly 90% kept working on the puzzle anyway.   These incompleted tasks “rattle around in our heads,” distracting and interrupting us from being focused and getting important things done.

PsyBlog’s recommendations below are on point.  I would suggest an alternative approach in one area.  PsyBlog suggests that in order to eliminate unfinished tasks from being a distraction, you need to get specific about action plans on your tasks (what, when, how, where).  I prefer David Allen’s strategy in “Getting Things Done.”   If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear – – you will be distracted.  You need to clear the noise.  Get all of your tasks written down and out of your head.  Have a system you trust to keep track of your tasks.  And then ask yourself: “What’s the next action”.   Then,  take the next action to move the task forward – no matter how small it is.  You’ll find that you’ll have more mental capacity to focus on what’s in front of you.  Getting too specific about action plans can be overwhelming and will lead many of us to do nothing (to procrastinate).  Outcome: we will continue to have “rocks” rattling around in our heads.  Best to get started, gather momentum and then dive deeper into the planning process as you gather a head of steam.

Here are some of the key excerpts from Psyblog on the Ziegarnik Effect:

  • On average each of us has 15 personal projects ongoing at any one time. It might include planning a trip to Europe, spring cleaning the house, getting a new job or any number of other goals.  Plus there’s all the stuff we’re doing right at the moment like working, shopping or reading.
  • Psychologists have known for a century that incomplete goals rattle around in our minds until they’re done. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect.”
  • The down side is that we can be distracted by incomplete goals while we’re trying to pursue another goal. And according to new research this is precisely what happens unless we have made very specific plans
  • “In a series of studies researchers found that while trying to enjoy reading a novel, participants were frequently interrupted by intrusive thoughts about an unfinished everyday task.  But when researchers told participants to make very specific plans about that unfinished goal, while reading they experienced less intrusive thoughts about the other activity. In fact the intrusive thoughts lessened to the same level as a control group.”
  • Making plans helps free up mental space for whatever we are doing right now, allowing us to be more efficient in the long term.”
  • “Specific goals include the how, what, where and when of whatever we want to achieve. For example if you’re planning a trip you might decide that during a quiet moment in the evening after supper you’ll draw up a list of hotels and flights to discuss with your partner. Then you can book them online on Saturday morning when you’re fresh (make sure, though, that you focus on the process and not the outcome).”
  • “If the plan is specific enough, it is automatically activated when the right circumstances arise. The rest of the time our minds should be freer from the other 14 goals that we’re not currently pursuing.”
  • “What all these examples have in common is that when people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it. Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid starting. It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.”
  • “What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.”
  • “Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end. It will niggle away in the back of your mind
  • “Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our projects. The sense of foreboding can be a big contributor to procrastination.”

Sources: PsyBlog – “The Zeigarnik Effect” and “How to Avoid Being Distracted From Your Goals”.  Image: 8tracks.com/dmark210

Comments

  1. I just looked at my list of personal to-do’s: 37. Ziegarnik would likely prescribe therapy, #38.

    I agree with doing something, anything even something small to get the momentum moving.

    Good post, David.

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. […] on creating a linear path for your prospect. If you do not, he or she will likely suffer from the Zeigarnik Effect. Basically, your reader will feel compelled to complete tasks that are not yet completed. This will […]

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  2. […] searching for that quote above, I came across David Kanigan’s blog “Lead Learn Live” where he talks about how the Zeigarnik Effect makes it difficult to get things done (and what to do […]

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  3. […] on creating a linear path for your prospect. If you do not, he or she will likely suffer from the Zeigarnik Effect. Basically, your reader will feel compelled to complete tasks that are not yet completed. This will […]

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  4. […] searching for that quote above, I came across David Kanigan’s blog “Lead Learn Live” where he talks about how the Zeigarnik Effect makes it difficult to get things done (and what to do […]

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