Mya Care Blogger 04 Jan 2024

Have you ever found yourself unable to stop thinking about an unfinished task? Maybe it is a project at work, a household chore, or even a personal goal. No matter how hard you try, it seems to linger in your mind, causing a sense of unease and distraction.

This is likely a result of the Zeigarnik Effect, which can psychologically affect our motivation, mental health, and memory. In this article, we will explore what the Zeigarnik Effect is, how it affects us, and how we can use it to our advantage.

What is the Zeigarnik Effect?

The Zeigarnik Effect, a psychological phenomenon, describes our tendency to recall unfinished tasks more than completed ones.[1] It can be observed in various aspects of our daily lives, such as:

  • A TV show ending on a cliffhanger, leaving the audience wanting more.
  • A company using a teaser campaign to generate interest in a new product.
  • A student remembering the material they studied right before taking a test.
  • A person constantly thinking about a task they need to complete at work.

It was first discovered by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in the 1920s while observing waiters in a restaurant.

Zeigarnik noticed that the waiters had a better memory for uncompleted orders than completed ones. This led her to conduct a series of experiments to understand this phenomenon further. Her initial experiments confirmed her observations that an incomplete task is better remembered than a completed one.

It was not until the 1960s that the effect gained widespread recognition. Since then, there have been numerous studies and experiments that have solidified its place in psychology.

How Does the Zeigarnik Effect Affect Us?

There are both negative and positive aspects of the Zeigarnik Effect. It can be a useful tool, but it can also have adverse effects on our mental health and productivity.[2]

Constantly thinking about unfinished tasks can lead to stress and anxiety and become overwhelming. The extent to which individuals are affected may vary depending on factors such as personality traits, individual experiences, and coping mechanisms.

Learning how to use it can create more accomplishment and motivation in our lives, improving productivity and mental health.

There are several ways in which the Zeigarnik effect impacts us and our mental health:

Mental Clutter and Intrusive Thoughts

The Zeigarnik Effect can cause mental clutter and intrusive thoughts, making it tough to focus on the present moment. Our brain allocates a portion of our short-term memory to unfinished tasks, causing a sense of cognitive tension.

This tension can manifest as intrusive thoughts, making it challenging to pay attention to the task at hand. Not finishing a task can also make us feel anxious and stressed because our brain keeps reminding us about it.

Long-Term Memory

The Zeigarnik Effect can affect how well we remember things. When we have unfinished tasks in mind, it is harder to focus and remember information for a long time. It causes us to think about multiple things in the short term, interfering with long-term memory storage.

We can remember things better by reducing the stress of unfinished tasks. This can be achieved by finishing the tasks immediately or by making a plan to complete them in the future. This helps us to focus in the moment and can improve memory.

Lower Quality of Sleep

The Zeigarnik Effect can impact sleep by causing intrusive thoughts about unfinished tasks. This can lead to difficulty in falling asleep and lower sleep quality.

One study explains that employees who did not finish tasks by the end of the week experienced poorer sleep over the weekend. This was due to heightened rumination. The effects stacked up over a 3-month period of having incomplete weekly tasks. Managing and completing tasks can help alleviate the Zeigarnik Effect and promote better sleep.

Zeigarnik Effect in Relationships

The Zeigarnik Effect can also have a substantial impact on our relationships.[3]

Unresolved issues or unfinished conversations can cause a sense of tension and unease in the relationship. This can lead to disputes, misunderstandings, and difficulty with communication.

By addressing and resolving these unfinished matters, we can improve our relationships and create a sense of closure. We can also improve our relationships by taking time to reflect on what we admire about them. This is similar to focusing on completed tasks and minimizing relationship strain.

Benefits of the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik effect can be used to our advantage. It can help us to improve productivity, learn and remember better, and achieve our goals.

Here's how:

Overcoming Procrastination and Improving Productivity

The Zeigarnik effect is closely linked with procrastination.

You might procrastinate because you feel tense and can't think, yet you may not be able to think clearly because the delay creates tension. This can become a catch-22 cycle.

Simply writing down a list of what needs to happen and by when may be enough to overcome this cycle of procrastination. It can also be used to improve productivity in our work and study habits, as it cuts out mental clutter.

Motivation and Goal Setting

On the other hand, the Zeigarnik Effect can also be a powerful motivator. An uncompleted task is often a source of mental tension that motivates us to complete it.

This can be useful when setting goals and working towards them. The sense of accomplishment gained from completing a task motivates us to continue working towards our goals.

Studying and Learning

For students, the Zeigarnik effect comes into play when studying for an exam. The task is only completed when the exam is over, and we are more obliged to remember what we learned for the task. It can also interfere with remembering information if studying is not managed properly.

If the student does not have time to study everything, they may struggle during the exam. They may feel stressed about the topics they did not cover instead of focusing on the ones they did. Breaking down learning material into sizeable portions can improve study sessions by increasing mental focus. It also helps with long-term planning and makes sure all the material gets covered before the exam.

Zeigarnik Effect in Marketing

Marketers and advertisers often use the Zeigarnik Effect to their advantage. They create a sense of unfinished business to keep their audience engaged and attentive to their products or services.

For example, a company may use a cliffhanger in their advertising campaign. This leaves the audience wanting more and viewing till the end of the advert to find out the conclusion. It can be an effective way to keep consumers interested and engaged with their brand.

Improving Our Relationships

A large portion of relationship building revolves around the goals and dreams people create and achieve together. If unrealistic and unachievable, it often leads to tensions that can build and pose negative consequences later.

To make our relationships better, we can set achievable goals and expectations and take active steps to reach them.

How to Overcome the Zeigarnik Effect

There are several ways to overcome the Zeigarnik effect that can prevent it from causing mental tension.

Setting and Prioritizing Tasks

One of the best ways to overcome the Zeigarnik Effect is by setting goals and steps to achieve them.[4]

Goals or tasks that remain as major projects may be delayed for longer. This is due to their perceived complexity, which may weigh heavier on the mind. We can use this technique to divide our goals into smaller parts that are easier to handle. Then, we can give priority to each step and set deadlines for them.

By prioritizing tasks, we can mentally 'discard' activities that cannot be accomplished within a day, week, or more. This allows us not to get stuck with more than we can complete during a given time frame. It also helps us improve our ability to complete achievable tasks by reducing mental distractions caused by tasks that are beyond our control.

When paying more attention to completed tasks, we alleviate the Zeigarnik effect's negative aspects. It also fosters a greater feeling of achievement as each task is accomplished.

Creating the Ultimate To-Do List

Creating a to-do list allows us to transfer incomplete tasks elsewhere and is essential for prioritizing tasks properly. There is an art to creating and maintaining to-do lists in a way that helps us to better overcome the Zeigarnik effect.[5]

When writing a to-do list:

Start by writing everything down. Get all the tasks you can think of onto a notepad without worrying about their order or importance. This will help you clear your mind.

Group similar tasks together to make it easier to prioritize and tackle them. You can sort tasks based on how urgent, important, or relevant they are to different areas of your life.

Use a priority matrix. This matrix can help you prioritize tasks based on how important and urgent they are.[6] Split your to-do list into four sections:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Important (not urgent)
  3. Urgent (not important)
  4. Not urgent or important

This will help you concentrate on tasks that are important and urgent.

Earmark tasks involving other people or processes outside of your personal sphere. This gives extra importance to tasks that might otherwise be postponed by others or other processes.

Give each task a deadline on your to-do list. This will create a sense of urgency and help you prioritize tasks based on when they are due. Make sure the deadlines are reasonable and doable.

Regularly check and update your to-do list to make sure it reflects your current priorities. This will help you stay organized and prevent tasks from piling up.

By following these tips, you can free up short-term memory and reduce cognitive tension by closing the loop on unfinished tasks.

Managing Breaks Effectively

Taking breaks during work is necessary for maintaining productivity and mental well-being. There are a few ways you can reduce the Zeigarnik effect, especially when you need a break in the middle of a task:

  • Plan your breaks strategically: When you know you have a long and complex task ahead, plan your breaks in advance. Try to schedule them at natural breakpoints in your work after reaching a milestone or finishing a subtask.
  • Close the Loop Before a Break: Before taking a break, take note of what you need to do when you return to complete the task. Consider using visual cues to remind yourself of where you left off so you can quickly re-orient upon your return.
  • Take active breaks: Opt for active breaks that engage your body. These dial down your mental load by not adding further incomplete tasks. Physical exercise, stretching, or getting outside into a natural setting are ideal. It shifts your focus away from the unfinished task, promotes blood circulation, and refreshes the mind.

These will help you effectively manage your breaks and minimize any potential negative impact on your focus and memory.

Practicing Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness helps to remain focused on the present moment, allowing our attention to shift away from incomplete chores. It also reduces the impact of intrusive thoughts and creates a sense of calm.

Taking Time Out

Engaging in calming activities like art or taking a walk can help calm Zeigarnik-related tensions. It lets the mind solve problems without us needing to think about it. This practice allows for mental relaxation that can lead to improved problem-solving abilities and overall productivity.

Assessing Relationship Goals

Goals and expectations in relationships apply to discussions, joint decisions, group projects, and joint aspirations. It also extends to arguments and debates. All of these can lead to negative sources of tension when mismanaged due to the Zeigarnik effect.

It is crucial to consider your goals and expectations in relationships, whether for family, partnerships, or in business. You can ease tensions by fleshing out realistic ideals to uphold in your relationships. This often helps one with proactive conflict resolution as well.

Reassess relationship goals and ideals regularly to remain up-to-date and to prevent unresolved conflicts from building.


The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon that describes our tendency to remember incomplete tasks more than completed ones. It can have both negative and positive effects on our mental health, motivation, and memory.

Knowing and utilizing the Zeigarnik Effect helps us to enhance our productivity and improve our relationships. By setting goals, creating a to-do list, and practicing mindfulness, we can ease mental tensions caused by unresolved tasks. The full potential of this practice enhances our mental well-being and the quality of our daily lives.

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