If you’ve found yourself here, we’ll wager you’re familiar with the feeling of dread that has you putting off to-do’s until the last possible second, the rush of adrenaline as you hustle to complete an approaching deadline. Procrastination: It’s the worst.
To overcome the dillydallying, allow us to introduce you to an expert-approved habit: Apparently, you can hack your brain to be more productive with a little something called the Zeigarnik effect. “It’s such a weird thing, but I think we can all relate to it,” says positive psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, M.D., author of Everyday Vitality, on the mindbodygreen podcast. Ahead, she explains how the science-backed phenomenon works (thus helping you work smarter).
What is the Zeigarnik effect?
It all started when Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in a bustling café in Vienna. She noticed something strange: The busy servers seemed to have an easy time remembering orders that were half-filled, but if she asked them about an order once it was fully completed, they had little memory of what the customers had. Did they order a cappuccino? A croissant?
She then tested these observations in a clinical setting, analyzing participants completing simple math problems and tasks. Half of these participants were interrupted during their tasks (unable to finish)—when researchers asked all the participants to describe what they were working on, those who were interrupted were twice as likely to remember the tasks compared to those who finished them to completion.
“It really speaks to this idea that our attention focuses on what’s half-finished, even what’s negative and what’s undone,” says Boardman. ADVERTISEMENT
How to use it to your advantage.
That’s not to say you should completely ignore your to-do’s—in fact, the Zeigarnik effect can actually help you finish those tasks, especially if you struggle with procrastination.
Here’s a tip: If you have a big project on your to-do list, start a small portion of that task, no matter how trivial it might seem. Then after you get the gears turning, take a break—perhaps even remove yourself from the workspace. According to the Zeigarnik effect, your brain will send you mental pings urging you to finish that task throughout the day. As a result, you may feel a spark (or two, or three…) of inspiration to work on the project until it’s fully completed—that’s the Zeigarnik effect doing its job.
And after you’re done, Boardman says don’t forget to acknowledge the accomplishment. “We’re terrible at giving ourselves any credit because we don’t even remember [the task],” she says. “We have to be a little more deliberate about what we have done.” The acknowledgment can be as simple as striking the item off a to-do list—after all, that gratification has brain-healthy benefits.
According to the Zeigarnik effect, our brains tend to remember half-finished tasks better than completed ones. To use this research to your advantage, you can “hack” your brain by starting a small portion of a task; your brain will then interrupt you, encouraging you to go back and complete what you started.