The Zeigarnik Effect

In the last blog, I suggested that the best effectiveness and efficiencies in our work can be achieved when we have prioritised what matters most and focus on that one task until it is completed.

The Zeigarnik Effect is a little-known psychological phenomenon that says that we are more motivated to complete interrupted and incomplete tasks than we are to start new ones. In other words, if we are doing a task, in an interested and motivated way, and have to stop doing it, we'll find it hard to settle until we get back to the task and finish it.

In the idea of single handling, the Zeigarnik Effect has been cited by productivity experts for many years … and flies in the face of the popular myth of ‘multi-tasking’; the conscious mind can only process one thought at time. Sure, a musician can play their instrument and a driver can drive a vehicle while talking at the same time, but that is as a result of at least one of the tasks being a habit.


Repeated research has shown that drivers using mobile phones are less able to drive safely and react to spurious events then those that concentrate on ‘just’ driving.

The Zeigarnik Effect is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008, pg. 122). The automatic system signals the conscious mind, which may be focused on new goals, that a previous activity was left incomplete. It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.


A study done by Greist-Bousquet and Schiffman (1992) provided evidence for the Zeigarnik Effect. In this paper, the authors stated that there is a tendency or “need” to complete a task once it has been initiated and the lack of closure that stems from an unfinished task promotes some continued task related cognitive effort. The cognitive effort that comes with these intrusive thoughts of the unfinished task is terminated only once the person returns to complete the task.


Unquestionably, there are two ways of looking at this – as with many other things in life:


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In their study, two groups were observed. The first group was administered a list of 10 three letter anagrams they were asked to solve. The second group was given a list of 20 three letter anagrams they were asked to solve. The first group was asked to estimate the amount of time it took them to finish solving the list after they completed it. Their estimated time was then divided by the actual time it took them to finish. The average ratio for this group was 1.109 which means they were very close to correct (Greist-Bousquet & Schiffman, 1992).


The second group was abruptly interrupted after the first 10 three letter anagrams. They were asked to estimate how much time it took them to finish the first set of 10 (they were fully aware they still had 10 more anagrams to complete). They then proceeded to finish the last 10 anagrams. They were asked again to estimate the time it took to finish the second set of 10 anagrams. For the first set of 10 anagrams, the average ratio was 1.646, which meant they overestimated how much time it took them to finish. The average ratio was 1.346 for the second set of 10 anagrams (Greist-Bousquet & Schiffman, 1992), which was fairly accurate.

The second group overestimated the time it took them to complete the task because they were disrupted. This caused them to feel frustrated and experience a form of failure. This distress and thoughts of returning to the objective may have caused them to think they were slower at finishing the first 10 anagrams.


The Zeigarnik Effect is named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, who was born in 1901 and worked with Kurt Lewin in Vienna. One day in 1927, while sipping coffee in a restaurant in Vienna, she noticed that all the waiters seemed to remember all the orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, however, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Another aspect of her work is that back in the laboratory, Zeigarnik decided to test the theory on her students. She set them a range of tasks such as solving puzzles and stringing beads. In some tasks, she allowed them to finish; in others, she interrupted them half-way through. Afterwards, she discovered that the students were twice as likely to remember the interrupted tasks than the completed ones.


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A YouTube video from James Lavers on the Zeigarnik Effect and its applications here.

This article was substantially based on information at which I would recommend as a go to site for all things behavioural and psychological.



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