Use the Zeigarnik Effect to Learn Better and Be More Productive

use the zeigarnik effect to learn better

How Can the Zeigarnik Effect Help You in Your Daily Life?

It’s always helpful to learn how the mind works so that we can use that knowledge to better ourselves.

That’s what happened on a chance encounter one day in 1927 with a Lithuanian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik. Her discovery can help you learn better and be more productive.

How it Started

In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik was having lunch in a restaurant with a group of friends.  The waiter came and took all their orders and didn’t write anything down. Surprisingly, the waiter remembered everything perfectly and everyone got the correct food.

When lunch was over, everyone left, including Bluma Zeigarnik. But, she forgot something, so she went back inside immediately to retrieve it. When she went back in, she wanted to ask the waiter with the incredible memory for help. However, the waiter who remembered so many things perfectly did not recognize her at all. He didn’t remember her, her friends, or where she sat.

Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.

Salman Rushdie
She purportedly asked the waiter how that could be since he had such a fantastic memory. He said he only remembers the orders until the food is delivered, then he promptly forgets.

This fascinated the psychologist, so she and her colleague, Kurt Lewin, set up a series of experiments to see whether the mind dealt with uncompleted tasks differently than completed tasks.

In one set of experiments, students were given puzzles and then were deliberately interrupted before they completed it. The people who were interrupted remembered the puzzles 90% better than those who weren’t interrupted.

This and other experiments demonstrated that when a task is unfinished, the subconscious mind doesn’t let it go. You remember it. It lurks there, nagging your conscious mind to make a plan to finish it. It clutters your mind and impedes your focus and productivity.

Have you ever not completed your daily to-do list and then found you were unable to go to sleep at night? You snuggled into bed and then your mind kicked into hyper mode, incessantly reminding you of all the things you needed to get done but didn’t? Sometimes you can toss and turn all night simply because you can’t shut your mind up!

Hence, the Zeigarnik Effect. It simply refers to the fact that unfinished tasks get stuck in your memory. Once a task is complete, however, you are free to forget it and move on.

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How to Use the Zeigarnik Effect in Daily Life

You can use this tidbit of knowledge about how your brain works to make learning easier and become more productive. Here are a few ways to implement it:

  • Use To-Do lists

Subsequent studies show that you don’t need to actually complete an action to get it out of your head. Simply making a plan to tackle it can clear your mind and let you relax and focus on other things. Use a to-do list to schedule when you will accomplish those tasks that need to get done.

Beware, though. Many people make to-do lists but don’t actually do what’s listed on them. To make sure your to-do list is effective, make sure you keep your list updated frequently, and prioritize the tasks. Otherwise, you’ll just pick the easiest and quickest things to do while leaving the ones that are less fun and more time-consuming to linger there forever.

Apps can help keep your to-do list accessible at all times, and they can even send you reminder notifications. It’s satisfying, too, to open it up and see the big checkmark next to the completed tasks, as well as all the fancy charts and graphs.

There are many to choose from. My favorite is Any.do, but Wunderlist, Todoist, Trello, and Asana are also popular. Check out several different apps and see which one fits you best.

  • Memorization Technique

When you have to memorize something, especially if it’s long and complicated, interrupt yourself frequently.

Let’s assume you need to memorize a long speech. Read it, familiarize yourself with it, and memorize a paragraph. Then, interrupt yourself. Look away or go think about something else for a while. Come back and memorize another paragraph. Go think about something else. Repeat until the whole speech is memorized. You’ll remember it better and longer.

  • Advertising

Of course, advertisers discovered the effectiveness of using the Zeigarnik Effect to get people to remember things longer, so they applied it to advertising.

James Heimbach and Jacob Jacoby tested the effect in 1972 using jingles in advertising. They took TV shows and interspersed them with ads that had either a complete (familiar) jingle or an incomplete one. Those who heard the ads with the incomplete jingle remembered the ad longer. They also found that if a commercial had an interruption in it, especially near the end, more people remembered the ad later.

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So, our minds favor finality and conclusion. When things are left undone, they stick around for a long time. You remember them longer, and your mind will constantly goad you, often at the most inopportune times.

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.
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