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

What is the Zeigarnik Effect?

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 exits the waiter’s conscious mind. Once that happens, 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. This 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 related information in our conscious minds. This creates tension in our minds that persists until the task is complete. The more incomplete tasks we have, the more information we hold in the forefront of our heads. This leads to stress and anxiety until we actually get these tasks done.

Some more relatable examples of the Zeigarnik Effect

A lot of information comes at us throughout the day. For instance, instructions from bosses or clients, chat messages popping up at random times, meeting notes, constant incoming emails etc. You could be searching for some information on the internet when suddenly, a new task pops up. Tasks also arise from top-down planning, i.e. the work you need to do to achieve your goals.

New tasks are often created faster than we can complete existing ones 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 mind into letting them go, thus countering the Zeigarnik Effect itself. However, it is crucial that this app or notebook is something you will review regularly. It has to be 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, the moment you capture something in a system your mind trusts (for ex. The Nerd Productivity System, The Getting Things Done System etc.), your mind will let it go.

Find a system you trust.

As long you have a trusted system, just the act of capturing everything will reduce anxiety and create clarity in your mind. This is why it’s important that anything and everything gets 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 need 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 set up and maintain, check out the Nerd Productivity System. Use it to capitalise on the Zeigarnik Effect.

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

Up Your Productivity Game.

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