Using the Zeigarnik Effect to reduce the anxiety related to unfinished tasks

The Zeigarnik Effect states that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik studied the phenomenon after her professor noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders.

Until the time a customer settles their bill, a waiter’s conscious mind holds details of their entire order. The moment the customer pays, all that information is instantly dropped from their conscious mind. After this point the waiter is unable to recall any details of their customers’ orders.

Another theory in psychology literature – ‘Lewin’s field theory’ states that a task that has already been started establishes a task-specific tension, which improves cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents. The tension is relieved upon completion of the task, but persists if it is interrupted.

Both these concepts effectively mean that we hold open, incomplete tasks with all their related information in our conscious mind. This creates a tension that persists in our minds until the task is complete. The more incomplete tasks we have, the more information we’re holding in the forefront of our head, creating all sorts of stress and anxiety until we actually get these tasks done.

There is a lot of information coming at us throughout our day. Instructions coming from our bosses or clients, chat messages popping up at random times, meeting notes, constant incoming email. You might be searching for some information on the internet, and something shows up that creates a task you need to do. You receive paper bills and statements which need to be dealt with. A brainstorming session with your team creates more work. Tasks also arise from top-down planning, which is the work you need to do to achieve your goals.

Tasks come at us faster than we can complete them and our mind doesn’t let these go until the work is actually done. This creates endless open loops of incomplete commitments that our mind is constantly holding onto. That is one of the key reasons for our constant state of anxiety, especially in the digital first world that we find ourselves in.

So how do we deal with this? We can’t possibly complete all the tasks that come at us all day.

Well, the first step is to capture everything that comes at us – big or small. The moment you take one of these incoming items or thoughts and capture them in an app or notebook, you will trick your conscious your mind into letting them go. However it is crucial that this app or notebook is something you will review regularly. It has to part of a system you trust.

‘Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.’
– David Allen, Getting Things Done

If your subconscious mind doesn’t trust your system your conscious mind will not let these open tasks go. On the other hand if you have implemented the Nerd Productivity System, or the ‘Getting Things Done’ system by David Allen, or any other system that your mind trusts, the moment you capture something in the system, your mind will let it go.

As long you have a trusted system, just the act of capturing everything will reduce anxiety and create clarity in your mind. Which is why its important that anything and everything needs to get captured.

As David Allen says:
‘Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.’

However, effective capturing can create too much information that you now have to review. So you also want to minimise the amount of information that makes it through, which means you need to unsubscribe or unfollow from as many things as possible. Whatever you can’t afford to unsubscribe, you need to filter out, so stuff that doesn’t necessarily need your active attention doesn’t come into your inbox.

If you’d like to learn how to build a system that you can trust, and that is also easy to setup and maintain, check out the Nerd Productivity System.

This system can help you get your anxiety and overwhelm under control, creating time and space for the deep, creative and satisfying work that will move you towards your goals.

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