Zeigarnik Effect: Unfinished Tasks Create Mental Tension

The most common cause for anxiety and stress in the workplace is when you know you have things to take care of but haven’t.
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In 1927, at the University of Berlin, Soviet Psychologist Bliuma Zeigarnik and her professor Kurt Lewin, observed a phenomenon among the waiters whilst sitting in the University café. This observation would go on to influence her own independent studies and research, and ultimately produce findings that would prove to be useful in the modern day - in particular for task management.

In her observation, Zeigarnik noticed how waiters could incredibly recall large numbers of orders around a table, yet once the orders had hit the plate and were served – this was all forgotten. In one instance, she enjoyed a meal with 15 others, with the waiter remembering each person’s order. However, when she returned not long after the meal to collect her bag she had left – the same waiter who had served her not too long before had forgotten who she was.

Being a Psychologist, she investigated further and put forward the hypothesis that incomplete tasks are actually - surprisingly - easier to remember than complete tasks - hence, why the waiter could remember the orders so well.

It prompted her to conduct her own experiment part of the Zeigarnik Effect where she set participants a task, with about half of those tasks being interrupted. Remarkably, the findings strongly supported that of the observation in waiters – with around 90% of interrupted tasks recalled better by participants!

(to see the original experiment paper, you can find it here - although it is written in German!)

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How does this relate to mental tension?

Zeigarnik while researching her Zeigarnik Effect didn’t stop there with her studies and went on to conduct further research, later theorising about what could be the underlying factor that drives this memory ‘gain.

Her answer was simple – the human mind hates unfinished tasks. And with the need to complete unfinished tasks, comes mental tension!

Whilst this is great when you are a waiter, and tasks can be completed almost instantly when tasks cannot be completed straight away – this is when mental tension or an inner conflict can be caused.

“Most of us do not like not being able to see what others see or make sense of something new. We do not like it when things do not come together and fit nicely for us. That is why most popular movies have Hollywood endings. The public prefers a tidy finale. And we especially do not like it when things are contradictory, because then it is much harder to reconcile them (this is particularly true for Westerners). This sense of confusion triggers in a us a feeling of noxious anxiety. It generates tension. So we feel compelled to reduce it, solve it, complete it, reconcile it, make it make sense. And when we do solve these puzzles, there's a relief. It feels good. We REALLY like it when things come together.’

- Peter T. Coleman, The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts

What is happening in your brain when you have unfinished tasks?

From time to time, we will all have the ‘nagging’ in our brain telling us we have a task to finish. Whether this is a news article we need to write, an important phone call we need to make, or simply an errand to run! The brain is essentially uncomfortable with the idea of an incomplete task and wants to feel comfortable again. It’s not too much to ask, right?

If that means that you will have a persistent reminder until the task is done – then actually, yes, it is.

However, this isn’t the case. According to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, it’s not the mind nagging you. In fact, it is the unconscious mind asking the conscious to – make a plan.

You should always make a plan

As John Tierney and Roy Baumeister noted, once a plan is formed, the unconscious mind can stop with the reminders – and your mind alleviated of mental stress. They are not the only ones to have investigated this, with the popular book by David Allen, entitled Getting Things Done - explaining how the most common cause for anxiety and stress in the workplace is when you know you have things to take care of, but haven’t. These open loops cause significant cognitive distress – and can sap you of your energy.

The worst thing is, that these tasks can stay with you outside of work – and into your free time. In a study by Syrek, C. J et al, conducted in 2017, they looked into how unfinished tasks impair employees’ sleep, which is affected by rumination. They concluded that - indeed - higher levels of unfinished tasks over the course of 3 months, related to increased sleep impairment on the weekend.

So, what should you do to alleviate mental stress from unfinished tasks?

There are really only two things you can do to ensure that unfinished tasks don’t keep on nagging, they are:

Do it now

Can you act immediately on the nagging task? Granted, it is not always possible, but if it’s really nagging you that much – it must be important to you! Whether there is an upcoming deadline, or you are nervous about the task – maybe it’s something new you’ve not done before – if you can get the task out of the way and make space for other thoughts, then why not!

If you really don’t have the time, however….

Make a plan and write a to-do list

If the studies described above haven’t convinced you to make a solid plan – we’re not sure what will. Although, what is really worth noting, is how you make these plans – and also how you manage them.

Making a ‘to-do’ list is an excellent example of a plan – but again, it’s an art! Take a look at this article to find out more about how to create your task list, and see what works best for you! There are also different methods on how you choose to tackle tasks – like the Ivy Lee Method, Eat your Frog first, and the 1-3-5 rule – and there is more information about that here!

Zeigarnik Effect Make a Plan

The Zeigarnik Effect really has come a long way since the initial observation of the waiter. It can be applied to so many areas of life and is certainly worth taking note of when you have many tasks to complete and limited time. So - if you have a task that needs finishing – what are you waiting for?

Go and make a plan! Reduce the Zeigarnik Effect!

Business Task Planning

Thinking about Zeigarnik Effect can you put plans into action for your business tasks? Can business tasks be managed to reduce mental tension and fatigue?

Work to do list or task management software. Task management app/software is a to-do list on steroids. Allowing you to store, document, track and know which tasks are a priority every day. This gives you a structured plan to work to and a daily workflow plan of action.

Research on Zeigarnik Effect

Zeigarnik's sleepless nights: How unfinished tasks at the end of the week impair employee sleep on the weekend through rumination

Still have questions?
We’ve got answers.
What is Task Management?

It is the process of handling the complete life-cycle of a task or series of tasks. Offering a more effective way to manage your workday, tasks and workflow.

It starts at the planning stage and covers tracking right through to execution. Task management allows you to track different tasks, right from the very beginning.

Read More: What is Task Management? How to Manage Tasks Effectively

Work To Do List or Task Management Software?
A to do list gives you a mental jolt to remind you what tasks you have to accomplish in your day. Many people see them as a tool for creating a shopping list for the grocery store but they can be a powerful tool in business. Task management is a to-do list with superpowers and far more suited to be business use. Read More:  Work To Do List or Task Management Software?
Task Management Software
Task management is more than a to-do list it's a dedicated tool to help you track tasks from beginning to end, achieve goals, set deadlines, delegate, manage your team’s time more effectively and make sure projects get done on time. Read More: Task Management Software: Empower Teams to be More Productive
Task Management Methodology
There is various task management methodology that helps keep track of what you need to do and help time management. Read More: Task Management Methodology