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An Overview of the Zeigarnik Effect and Memory

Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.

problem solving zeigarnik effect

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

problem solving zeigarnik effect

Have you ever found yourself interrupted by intrusive thoughts about unfinished work? Perhaps they were about a partially finished work project keeping you up at night or the plot of a half-read novel that keeps circling your thoughts. There is a reason why it's so hard to stop thinking about uncompleted and interrupted tasks. Psychologists refer to this as the Zeigarnik effect, or the tendency to better remember unfinished tasks than completed ones.

The Zeigarnik Effect

When you start working on something but do not finish it, thoughts of the unfinished work continue to pop into your mind even when you've moved on to other things. Such thoughts urge you to go back and finish the thing you have already begun. It's why you keep thinking about that page-turner. Or why you want to finish playing a video game until you win. Unfinished work continues to exert an influence, even when we try to move on to other things.

Soap operas and serialized dramas also take advantage of this effect. The episode may end, but the story is unfinished. Cliffhangers leave viewers eager to learn more, and thanks to the Zeigarnik effect, they will remember to tune in next time to find out what happens.

You have probably also experienced this effect while in school. Before an exam, you probably had fairly good recall for the information that you were studying. After an exam, however, students often have difficulty remembering all of the things that they studied. Because you no longer have immediate use for it, the information sometimes feels like it has been flushed out of your memory.

How Was It Discovered?

The effect was first observed and described by a Russian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik, a student of influential theorist Kurt Lewin . While sitting in a busy restaurant in Vienna, she noted that the waiters had better memories of unpaid orders. Once the bill was paid, however, the waiters had difficulty remembering the exact details of the orders.

Zeigarnik's Research

In a series of experiments, participants were asked to complete simple tasks such as placing beads on a string, putting together puzzles, or solving math problems. Half of the participants were interrupted partway through these tasks.

After an hour-long delay, Zeigarnik asked participants to describe what they had been working on. She discovered that those who had their work interrupted were twice as likely to remember what they had been doing as those who had actually completed the tasks. 

In another version of the experiment, she found that adult participants were able to remember the unfinished tasks 90 percent more often than they did the finished tasks. Zeigarnik's initial studies were described in a paper titled "On Finished and Unfinished Tasks" published in 1927.

Further Research Exploring the Effect

During the 1960s, memory researcher John Baddeley further explored these findings in an experiment. Participants were given a limited period of time to solve a set of anagrams. When they could not solve the anagram before the time was up, they were given the word answer.

When the participants were later asked to recall the word in the anagrams, they showed better memory for the words that they had not solved. This supports Zeigarnik's finding that people have a better memory for unfinished or interrupted information.

Conflicting Research

Not all research has found support for the effect, however. Some studies have failed to show the same effect and other researchers have found that there are a variety of factors that can influence the strength of the effect. For example, studies have shown that motivation can play a major role in how well people remember information.

How Does It Work?

Short-term memory is limited in both capacity and duration. Typically, we can only manage to retain so many things in memory, and even then we need to keep rehearsing the information in order to hold on to it. This requires quite a bit of mental effort. Not surprisingly, the more you are trying to keep in your memory for the short-term, the harder you have to work to get it to stay put.

Waiters, for example, have to remember a lot of details about the tables they are serving. Information about what people ordered as well as what they are drinking needs to remain in their memory until the customers have finished their meals.

To deal with this overload of data, people often rely on a number of mental tricks that allow them to better remember a great deal of information. The Zeigarnik effect is one example of this. We hold on to this information in the short-term by constantly pulling it back into awareness. By thinking of uncompleted tasks often, we better remember them until they are complete.

But this effect does not just impact memory in the short-term. Unfinished tasks such as goals that we still have to reach can continue to intrude in our thoughts over extended periods of time.

The Zeigarnik effect reveals a great deal about how memory works . Once information is perceived, it is often stored in sensory memory for a very brief time. When we pay attention to information, it moves into short-term memory. Many of these short-term memories are forgotten fairly quickly, but through the process of active rehearsal, some of this information is able to move into long-term memory .

Zeigarnik suggested that failing to complete a task creates underlying cognitive tension. This results in greater mental effort and rehearsal in order to keep the task at the forefront of awareness. Once completed, the mind is then able to let go of these efforts.

How to Make the Most of It

More than just being an interesting observation about how the human brain works , the Zeigarnik effect can actually have implications in your day-to-day life. You can even use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage.

Common sense might tell you that finishing a task is the best way to approach a goal. The Zeigarnik effect instead suggests being interrupted during a task is an effective strategy for improving your ability to remember information.

Get More Out of Your Study Sessions

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A Word From Verywell

The Zeigarnik effect began as a simple observation of how restaurant waiters deal with customer orders. Subsequent research has offered support to the idea that, at least in some instances, we have a tendency to better recall unfinished tasks than completed ones. While there are many factors that can influence the occurrence of the effect and its strength, you can utilize knowledge in a number of ways. By taking deliberate breaks while working on a project, you may find that you are able to better remember important details.

Zeigarnik B. On finished and unfinished tasks . In: Ellis WD, ed.  A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology.  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company; 1938:300-314. doi:10.1037/11496-025

Baddeley AD. A Zeigarnik-like Effect in the Recall of Anagram Solutions .  Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology . 1963;15(1):63-64. doi:10.1080/17470216308416553

Kodden B. The Art of Sustainable Performance: The Zeigarnik Effect . In: The Art of Sustainable Performance. In:  The Art of Sustainable Performance . Springer International Publishing; 2020:67-73. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-46463-9_10

Oyama Y, Manalo E, Nakatani Y. The Hemingway effect: How failing to finish a task can have a positive effect on motivation .  Thinking Skills and Creativity . 2018;30:7-18. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2018.01.001

Syrek CJ, Antoni CH. Unfinished tasks foster rumination and impair sleeping—Particularly if leaders have high performance expectations .  Journal of Occupational Health Psychology . 2014;19(4):490-499. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037127

The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, Volume 4 . United Kingdom, Wiley, 2010.

Syrek CJ, Antoni CH. Unfinished tasks foster rumination and impair sleeping—Particularly if leaders have high performance expectations .  Journal of Occupational Health Psychology . 2014;19(4):490-499. doi:10.1037/a0037127

By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.

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There’s a Science-Backed Reason You Have Your Best Ideas in the Shower

problem solving zeigarnik effect

According to Fast Company , your mind tends to remember unsolved or interrupted problems better than projects you've already finished—the aforementioned Zeigarnik effect. So when you're stumped by a complex puzzle—a tricky riddle, for instance, or a complicated workflow issue at work—and take a break from trying to reason it out, the idea lingers in your brain (kind of like all those unclosed apps chugging along in the background on your phone). And when you let your mind drift , it gives your brain the chance to connect insights from your actions or surroundings with your unsolved problems in order to come up with a solution.

The reason those puzzle pieces often come together in the shower is because nothing in there requires your full attention.

The reason those puzzle pieces often come together in the shower is because nothing in there requires your full attention. It's quiet, you're relaxed, and you're basically just left with your wandering thoughts. So you may glance at your shampoo bottle, which was recommended by your co-worker Ali, and— aha! You realize that Ali is the perfect person to lead that new project.


So the next time you're trying to be creative or solve a problem, stop thinking so hard. Roll out your yoga mat , take a walk , read a book , and let the answer come to you.

Probiotics have been linked to brain fog —so should you kick your kombucha habit? Or check out the buzzy eating plan that will seriously boost your brain .

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3 Specific Ways to Benefit from the Zeigarnik Effect

August 31, 2021 by Eva Keiffenheim

How interrupting your tasks can boost your creativity.

problem solving zeigarnik effect

Have you ever felt guilty about not finishing a task?

My parents used to tell me “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” ( German: Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen.)

I grew up in the mindset believing anything that can be done today should be done today. Whenever I procrastinated on a thing, I felt bad.

But not finishing can be a good thing. Here’s a brief explanation of the Zeigarnik effect and four ways to reap the benefits in everyday life.

A brief explanation of the Zeigarnik effect

In the 1920s, soviet researcher Bluma Zeigarnik discovered people remember interrupted or uncompleted activities better than completed ones.

She observed the effect in waiters. They remembered orders only so long as the order was open and forgot it as soon as it was served.

As a scientist, Zeigarnik started experiments to test her observation. She asked probands to complete 15 to 22 tasks such as solving a puzzle, stringing beads, folding paper, or counting backward.

She let half of the participants complete all of their tasks while she interrupted the other half before they finished.

Zeigarnik then tested how many unfinished tasks the participants would remember. The experiment’s results were significant. Participants were twice as likely to remember incomplete tasks than complete ones.

You likely know this effect from earworms. When you stop listening to a song halfway through, your brain will start the song repeatedly to complete it. The music will be stuck in your head.

The Zeigarnik effect has also been explored more recently by two researchers from Florida State University. Baumeister and Masicampo discovered people did worse on a task when they were interrupted finishing a warm-up activity — because it is still stuck in their working memory.

problem solving zeigarnik effect

How to use the Zeigarnik effect for you

Luckily, the Zeigarnik effect also comes with upsides. You can use it to improve your creativity, memory, and much more.

1) Better recall through interleaving

Learning scientists agree unfinished things stay longer in your memory. If you interrupt a learning session and resume later, you’ll likely remember more of the content.

Researchers call this learning strategy interleaving: “In interleaving, you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete. If learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically over time, they remember it better.”

So the next time you’re trying to remember information, schedule strategic breaks in the middle of your learning session.

2) Boost your creativity with this trick

Creativity doesn’t work with willpower. You can’t sit down and force your best ideas to come to your consciousness. Creativity works better in your brain’s diffused mode.

This mode feels like daydreaming and enables new neural connections. When you let your mind wander without actively thinking about the problem, you likely come up with a solution you hadn’t thought about.

Adam Grant writes in his book Originals: “When you’re generating new ideas, deliberately stop when your progress is incomplete. By taking a break in the middle of the process, you’re more likely to engage in divergent thinking and give ideas time to incubate.”

The Zeigarnik effect can help unlock your best ideas. Start thinking about a topic or an unsolved problem. Write the question down and bring it to your mind. But then, do something unrelated where you can let your mind wander, e.g., washing the dishes, cleaning the apartment, going for a phone-free walk.

“These were all situations which occurred to me-while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk and which I eventually turned into books.”
— Steven King

3) Get people’s attention with cliffhangers

Ever binge-watched a series? Likely, every episode finished unfinished with a story thread that hadn’t been resolved.

But even if you don’t write a playscript, you can increase people’s interest with informational teasers.

When you give presentations, for example, the Zeigarnik effect can help you retain your audience’s attention. Tease a piece of important information early on, but don’t reveal it until the end.

The next time you feel guilty about not finishing a task, remember the Zeigarnik effect — a strategic break can actually help you be more creative, improve your recall, or get people’s attention.

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The Zeigarnik Effect: Definition And Examples

The Zeigarnik Effect: Definition And Examples post image

The Zeigarnik effect is the psychological finding that people remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones.

The definition of the Zeigarnik effect is that people remember unfinished tasks or activities better than those that are finished.

When a task is finished or completed it tends to leave memory.

The Zeigarnik effect also provides a key to one of the simplest methods for beating procrastination .

The Zeigarnik effect was named after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna.

Example of the Zeigarnik effect

What she noticed was that the waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served.

When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on.

She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads ( Zeigarnik, 1927 ).

Except some of the time they were interrupted half way through the task.

Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing.

People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed.

What does this have to do with procrastination? I’ll give you another clue…

Almost sixty years later Kenneth McGraw and colleagues carried out another test of the Zeigarnik effect ( McGraw et al., 1982 ).

In it participants had to do a really tricky puzzle; except they were interrupted before any of them could solve it and told the study was over.

Despite this nearly 90 percent carried on working on the puzzle anyway.

Another Zeigarnik effect example

One of the oldest tricks in the TV business for keeping viewers tuned in to a serial week after week is the cliffhanger.

The hero seems to have fallen off a mountain but the shot cuts away before you can be sure.

And then those fateful words: “TO BE CONTINUED…”

Literally a cliffhanger.

You tune in next week for the resolution because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.

The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same technique.

Many of his works, like Oliver Twist , although later published as complete novels, were originally serialised.

His cliff-hangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that his American readership would wait at New York docks for the latest instalment to arrive by ship from Britain.

They were that desperate to find out what happened next.

I’ve started so I’ll finish

What all these examples have in common is that when people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it.

Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid starting.

It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.

What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first.

If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow.

Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end.

It will niggle away in the back of your mind like a Lost cliff-hanger.

Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our projects.

The sense of foreboding can be a big contributor to procrastination.

When the Zeigarnik effect does not work

The Zeigarnik effect has an important exception.

It doesn’t work so well when we’re not particularly motivated to achieve our goal or don’t expect to do well.

This is true of goals in general: when they’re unattractive or impossible we don’t bother with them.

But if we value the goal and think it’s possible, just taking a first step could be the difference between failure and success.

problem solving zeigarnik effect

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Writers as diverse as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and even J.K Rowling have demonstrated the power of cliffhangers in fiction, but why limit this device to stories? Apply the Zeigarnik Effect  to improve your learning, productivity, relationships, and even your mental health.

The Zeigarnik Effect describes your tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks more than completed ones.  


This model can be traced back to the 1920s when Bluma Zeigarnik, a Soviet psychologist, was sitting in an Austrian Cafe. Zeigarnik noticed that the waiters in the cafe consistently memorised complex food orders from patrons but, as soon as the order was delivered, the waiters seemed to forget the order. Zeigarnik’s resulting hypothesis was that, because our brains are so goal-focused, unfinished tasks would remain in our memory longer than finished ones.

In a sense, such unfinished tasks create a ‘cognitive tension’ in our minds that demand ongoing focus and thought. See the Origins section below for how she researched and tested this hypothesis. 


While Zeigarnik’s original thesis focused on incomplete goals, recent research has discovered that making a plan to complete an unfinished goal will reduce the Zeigarnik Effect . In other words, simply making a plan or scheduling an unfinished task might be enough to create a sense of ‘mental completion’, allowing you to forget the unfinished task. 

View Limitations below for other complicating factors with how this model plays out, including motivation and perceived difficulty of tasks. 


There are many potential applications of this mental model, including: 

Learning . Use the Zeigarnik Effect to interrupt your learning and create an ‘unfinished state’ with important topics to better embed them into memory. 

Innovation . Combine this model with Focused and Diffuse Thinking to consciously seed ‘incomplete’ problems and key questions into your subconscious mind for more diffuse and creative problem-solving. See the canvas at the bottom of this page for more. 

Task motivation . Strategically interrupt important work at key moments to ensure that it remains front of mind and that you are driven to return and complete it as a result.  

Mental health . Apply the mental model in reverse, working to close 'open loops' and achieve a sense of ‘closure’ that will support you to be more present and reduce overwhelm and anxiety. 

Marketing and communication . Use cliffhanger styled storytelling techniques to ‘hook’ an audience and keep them engaged in your narrative. This might include posing a question, a problem or a surprising idea that you answer and address later. 

UX . Create gradual goals and feedback for users to give them a sense of progress and encourage them to strive for completion, e.g. ‘Your profile is 40% complete, why not finish it now?’

Relationships . Remember that rule about not going to bed angry with one another? According to the Zeigarnik Effect, it’s a thing. You don’t even have to resolve everything, just identify a plan or a time where you can address issues and points of conflict.


We’ve already mentioned how the Zeigarnik Effect is a wonderful companion model with Focused and Diffuse Thinking   and Deep Work   for innovation and problem-solving. In fact, see the canvas at the bottom of this page for a practical guide of combining these three models. 

Beyond that, in a learning context, consider combining it with Spaced Retrieval . Apply your understanding of Activation Energy to this model for improved task completion, for example, consider interrupting work to keep it in your mind and ensure you return to it, even as you’re reducing Activation Energy by providing yourself with an easy re-entry point. 

Continuing with the theme of tasks and productivity, use the Zeigarnik Effect to better understand the power of Kanban   and other productivity methods that allow you to capture tasks while defining your focus. Compare this to a long list of unsorted tasks that will give you a constant sense of incompletion and potential overwhelm and anxiety as a result.

Finally, consider how you will combine this model with Temporal Landmarks . Such landmarks can help you to develop a mental sense of completion, even if nothing else has changed. So leverage the 'fresh starts' that the morning, beginning of a week, or new year provides. 


problem solving zeigarnik effect

Use the canvas. 

See the canvas at the bottom of this page for practical help in combining the Zeigarnik Effect with Focused and Diffuse Thinking   and Deep Work   for a more effective working week. 

Strategically interrupt to learn and remember. 

Consider what information and priorities you want in your memory and interrupt your reading or work accordingly to apply the Zeigarnik Effect . 

Strategically complete tasks to forget and clear your mind. 

Protect your mental health! By the same token as the previous point, consider things you are carrying in your mind that you don’t want there and consider how you might create a sense of completion so you can let go of them cognitively. Remember that you don't necessarily need to actually complete them, you need to seek that 'mental completion' with a plan or sense of closure. And yes, I am talking about that old family clash from your childhood that still gets under your skin!

Create plans and schedule tasks. 

As noted, recent research has demonstrated that creating plans or scheduling tasks helps to shift unfinished tasks in your mind. This can help you focus, be more present, and reduce anxiety. 

Make a start on tasks you want to prioritise. 

Getting started on a task not only helps you overcome Activation Energy , it also helps you to better fix that task in your mind, maximising your chance of completing it. 

Use cliffhangers in pitches, communication, stories and marketing.

Hook your audience with something they are interested in and curious about. Then, delay the reveal to maintain interest and engagement. 

Combine the Zeigarnik Effect with Focused and Diffuse Thinking to solve complex problems. Purposefully interrupt your work on a complex challenge to seed that problem in your mind, then go for a walk or just relax to let your subconscious mind, and Diffuse Thinking , to continue to work on it. 

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While there has been considerable research supporting the Zeigarnik Effect, there have been studies that have not replicated it and/or point to complicating factors.

Zeigarnik herself pre-empted such criticism, by suggesting that a number of factors would influence the magnitude of the effect, including the timing of the interruption, the motivation of the person, how tired they were, and how difficult they believed the task was. 

I’ve already noted the research asserting that planning and scheduling can have a similar effect to completing a task from a cognitive perspective. This research was conducted by Baumeister and Masicampo in 2011 who, for example, found that study participants did worse on a brainstorming task when they were not allowed to finish a warm-up task. However, they were able to improve their brainstorming simply by making a plan to complete the warm-up task. 

Other research by McGraw and Fiala in 2006, suggested that reward expectancy impacted the Zeigarnik Effect . Specifically, demonstrating that participants promised a reward would less likely to return to a task than those that were not promised a reward. 

Kids and learning.

One of the studies that Bluma Zeigarnik ran involved children and learning. She gave 138 children tasks involving puzzles and maths. 

Group A were allowed to finish without interruption. An hour later 12% of them remembered the tasks.

Group B were interrupted. An hour later 80% of them remembered the tasks.

Other experiments saw similar results with adults. 

Learn & Achieve

The story of Bluma Zeigarnik sitting in an Austrian Cafe in the 1920s to spark her hypothesis has some variations in the retelling. Some describe the waiters forgetting orders after the food was delivered, elsewhere it’s about when the bill was paid. Either way, it does seem that such an experience piqued her curiosity. 

It led to a series of experiments, one of which was described in the In Practice section. Many of these experiments involved participants completing simple tasks such as puzzles, a maths problem, or making a clay figure. Her results consistently revealed up to 90% more recall from those who were interrupted in their task completion for both children and adults alike. 

Zeigarnik published her results in 1927 in a paper entitled On Finished and Unfinished Tasks . 

problem solving zeigarnik effect

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Memory for incomplete tasks: A re-examination of the Zeigarnik effect

An important feature of human memory is the ability to retrieve previously unsolved problems, particularly when circumstances are more favorable to their solution. Zeigarnik (1927) has been widely cited for the finding that interrupted tasks are better remembered than completed ones; however, frequent replications and non-replications have been explained in terms of social psychological variables (Prentice, 1944). The present study examines differences in memory for tasks based on completion status by appealing to cognitive variables such as the nature of interruption, time spent during processing, and set size. In one experiment using word problems, subjects were interrupted on half of the problems after a short interval of active problem solving, and completed tasks were in fact better remembered than interrupted ones. However, less processing time was necessarily spent on problems that were interrupted. A second experiment held time constant, allowing subjects to abandon tasks they could not complete. In this experiment, the opposite result occurred, replicating Zeigarnik and showing better access to unsolved problems in free recall. However, enhanced memorability in this study may have resulted from a subject-generated impasse in problem solving rather than "interruption" per se. This successful replication also included set size differences in favor of incomplete problems. Under these conditions, the status of completion can serve as a useful index to past problem situations. These experiments are successful in identifying cognitive variables that explain when one can suspend effort on a failed problem, and recall it at a later time.

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Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society

Zeigarnik Effect: A Counterintuitive Approach to Boost Your Productivity

The Zeigarnik effect is what happens when the brain can more easily recall an activity that has been interrupted.

Interestingly, the Zeigarnik effect is based on something that KosmoTime is designed to protect you against— interruptions.

So, it may seem strange and counterintuitive that I’d want to devote an entire blog post to a topic like this.

But hear me out.

Understanding the Zeigarnik effect and its implications can help refine your approach to productivity so you can get more done.

Let me show you how.

Origins of the Zeigarnik Effect

Believe it or not, the Zeigarnik effect stemmed from something rather mundane — observing the ability of waiters to remember orders and unpaid bills of patrons. This was back in 1927, before waitstaff and kitchens used high-tech order processing techniques.

problem solving zeigarnik effect

In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was attending the University of Berlin.

She was a total badass, collecting degrees, awards, publications, and honors like nobody’s business.

Bluma Zeigarnik

Essentially, she created an entirely new field in the arena of psychology.

One day, she was dining at a nearby cafe and noticed that the waiters were able to remember complex orders and unpaid tabs with relative ease.

Zeigarnik effect in waiters

So, within a span of just 20 or 30 minutes, waiters went from having amazing memory recall abilities to hardly being able to remember anything.

Brain function: delete.

Zeigarnik was intrigued and decided to perform in-depth research to better understand this phenomenon and what was going on.

To do this, she had a group of 138 kids participate in an experiment where they performed a series of basic tasks, puzzles, and math problems.

Zeigarnik had them perform half of the tasks before intentionally interrupting them while they were completing the rest of the tasks.

And what she found was interesting.

110 of the 138 kids were able to recall the interrupted tasks more easily than the completed tasks — nearly 80%.

Zeigarnik also conducted a similar experiment with adults and found that an even higher number (90%) were able to recall unfinished tasks better than completed ones.

In other words, the vast majority of people — both children and adults — were able to recall information more easily when they were interrupted.

Definition of the Zeigarnik Effect

In terms of a formal definition, I like this one from social psychologists Baumeister & Bushman the best.

“The Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete.”

“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.”

In simple terms, our brains are wired for the completion of tasks and to see them through until the end.

Definition Zeigarnik effect

And once it’s done, we move onto the next thing.

For more details on what the Zeigarnik effect is and the logic that goes into, check out this quick video from Valorian.

How the Zeigarnik Effect Can Boost Productivity

That sounds good and all, but what exactly does this mean from a productivity standpoint?

It’s simple.

You can use the Zeigarnik effect to avoid procrastination and propel yourself to finish a task more quickly.

“The Zeigarnik effect suggests that not finishing a task creates mental tension, which keeps it at the forefront of our memory,” writes Sarah Young of The Independent . “The only thing that will relieve this tension? Closure brought on by completion of the task.”

This is actually something that’s used all of the time on TV series in the form of cliffhangers.

At the very end of an episode, you’re left with a closing scene where you’re dying to know what happens next.

Episode 8, season 5 of Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” is a great example.

In the final scene, Walter White’s brother-in-law Hank makes the startling realization that Walter is the notorious drug lord he’s been chasing.

Zeigarnik effect in Breaking Bad

The screen then fades to black, and viewers are left gasping and wondering what will happen during the next half of the season.

So, naturally, they bingewatch.

At the end of the day, the Zeigarnik effect is all about completing a task to find closure.

And this can give you a massive advantage if you struggle with procrastination or just want to be more productive.

Giving Yourself the Necessary Motivation

It all boils down to one thing — motivation.

Understanding the phenomenon behind the Zeigarnik effect can help you provide yourself with the motivation you need to get tasks done without “dillydallying.”

And it’s dead simple. Just get started .

“When we start something, we are more inclined to finish it,” says time management expert, speaker, and author, Jones Loflin . “It really doesn’t matter where we start. Even doing the easiest parts can provide the motivation to continue to completion.”

That’s because having an unfinished task will stay on our mind until we complete it.

Although it’s consuming cognitive energy and bothering us, which is unpleasant, this can provide the incentive needed to get after it and ultimately get it done.

Or as Loflin adds, “Our minds will continue to poke us at every opportunity to go finish it.”

But once we’re done, we’ll have closure and can finally relax, while relishing in the fact that we’ve been productive.

When you look at it like this, you can see why the Zeigarnik effect can be so powerful and an approach that’s perfect for chronic procrastinators.

Taking the First Step

And here’s the beautiful thing about this approach.

You don’t need to take a deep dive into a task to make it work.

Even if the first step is small , it should still create the spark needed to get you moving, providing you with critical momentum.

Once you’ve gotten started, the task will naturally occupy your thoughts, where you’ll keep thinking about it until it’s done.

It’s this “dissonance” or tension that will light a fire under you and put you on the path of completing the task.

And it kills two birds with one stone because the feeling of accomplishment you get after finishing the job gives you even more positive momentum, which can carry over into future tasks.

So, while at first glance, the Zeigarnik effect may seem counterintuitive because it’s creating stress and forcing you to use mental energy, it’s clear that it can be highly beneficial in the long run, when used correctly.

Using KosmoTime in Conjunction with the Zeigarnik Effect

At this point, I’ve established how this phenomenon works and the impact it can have.

For the rest of this post, I’m going to offer some actionable advice on how to practically implement it and take full advantage.

One specific technique is to use a time blocking app, like KosmoTime to set goals and track your time.

This is done by organizing tasks into sprints , where you set aside time in your calendar to devote to tasks.

Let’s say, for example, you need to prepare for a new product launch.

With KosmoTime, you can block off a certain chunk of time that you spend solely on that task.

problem solving zeigarnik effect

Creating a sprint like this helps you get the ball rolling and prevents you from getting into the “I’ll get to it later” mindset.

As I just discussed, just getting started is an integral part of the Zeigarnik effect.

Once you’ve taken the first step, the task should stay on your mind until you complete it.

And KosmoTime takes it one step further by also helping you block distractions that could get in the way when you’re focusing on a task.

If the first phase of preparing a product launch involved reviewing editorial guidelines and brand voice, you could start that task, which would shut down all of your other tabs, allowing you to focus 100%.

Zeigarnik effect

If it is part of your task, you simply click “Yes, let me in.”

problem solving zeigarnik effect

And besides just preventing this immediate distraction, it helps you become more cognizant of your habits, helping instill more self-discipline.

Over time, this puts you on track to becoming the equivalent of a Shaolin productivity warrior, which don’t actually exist but we can pretend.

Other Helpful Techniques

Besides using a tool like KosmoTime to rev up your productivity and avoid procrastination, there are two other techniques I recommend.

The 90/20 Productivity Rule

One is to use the 90/20 rule, which involves working intently on a task for 90 minutes, and then taking a 20 minute break.

Zeigarnik effect in the 90/20 rule

This is based around recurring ultradian rhythms that allow you to work with and not against your natural energy cycles.

The key is to have intensely hyper-productive periods followed by regenerative downtime so that you’re able to work with a consistently high level of energy without becoming fatigued.

I’ve done a ton of experimentation with the 90/20 rule and can say with confidence that it’s genuinely helpful and keeps me from getting burned out.

So, whenever there’s a specific task that demands your attention, I suggest using this approach to plow through it.

The other strategy is the Pomodoro Technique, which is where you break the 90/20 rule down into multiple manageable chunks.

Here you work on a task for 25 minutes (called a “Pomodoro”), then take a five minute break.

Zeigarnik effect and pomodoro

Repeat this process three times until you’ve reached a total of 90 minutes, then take a longer 20 minute break like I just discussed with the 90/20 rule.

Check out this guide from productivity coach Francesco Cirillo for the full scoop on the Pomodoro Technique.

Intentionally leave a task unfinished

Sometimes, it’s smart to leave a task unfinished.

Due to the Zeigarnik effect, your brain will more easily recall the information that you left in limbo, so to speak.

Some writers and novelists stop their work in mid-sentence, forcing them to think deeply on the next movement in their writing.

Hemingway and the Zeigarnik effect

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. — Ernest Hemingway

YCombinator contributor , “Alf,” writes this about what he refers to as “The Hemingway Trick.”

The Hemingway Trick: Stop in the middle. Never stop working at the natural barriers. They next time you start working, the barrier will be the first thing you encounter, and you won’t have the momentum to overcome it.   Try to stop writing mid-chapter, or mid-sentence (or mid function). Know how to finish, but stop working.   The next time you start, you know exactly what needs to be done. There will even be the urge to start working to finish the unfinished.   Nearing the end of a unproductive [sic] day, accept that the day was not productive, start on what you will work on tomorrow, do a little, and stop in the middle.

LifeHacker writer Kevin Purdy swears by this technique to defeat writer’s block.

One writer, by way of a Hemingway quote, found that stopping mid-sentence left her mental engine primed for the next session.

You may not be Hemingway, attempting to write the next For Whom the Bell Tolls, but you are a professional, attempting to handle multiple tasks and cognitive demands.

So how can you use this technique?

Try this…

Let Thorny Issues Remain Unsolved

One way to use the Zeigarnik effect to maximum potential is to let a thorny issue just lay there, exposed and ugly.

Don’t try to solve it. Don’t try to remove it.

Just leave it alone.

Take a nap. Go to bed. Play a game of chess. Prepare some fettuccini, whatever.

Then come back to the Thorny Issue and take a stab at it.

Chances are, because you’ve let your brain’s talons free from the issue for a while, you’ll come back to it with more freshness and a likely solution.

This happened just last night. All day, I was struggling with a marketing conundrum involving a double-sided marketplace.

I went to bed around 9pm. (I go to bed early.)

I woke up at 3am with the answer, wrote it down, and went back to sleep.

Thomas Edison famously said, ““Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”

There’s something valuable in letting an issue alone, unsolved, and coming back to it with a fresh approach when your subconscious has had a go at it.

Your subconscious keeps working on issues, even while you’re sleeping, showering, or lathering your savory sauce over steaming fettuccini.

Thank you, Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik.

Let’s Recap

I know I’ve thrown a lot at you, but it’s pretty simple when you break it all down.

The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological phenomenon that was revealed in the 1920s by Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik, illustrating that our brains continually remind us whenever there’s an unfinished task.

Once that task is done, however, we tend to quickly forget it and move onto other things.

And that’s quite a breakthrough in terms of preventing procrastination, and has taught us that getting started on a task basically forces us to keep working on it until it’s completed.

Although the mental energy that’s used and the lack of closure can be unpleasant, it serves as a strong motivator that can fire up even the worst of procrastinators.

It’s just a matter of using the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage.

The bottom line is that whenever you need to get something done, simply getting started is often all it takes.

Then, your mind will keep “poking you” to wrap it up.

To streamline things even more and put yourself in the best position possible, you can use a tool like KosmoTime to create sprints and prevent distractions.

And to capitalize on natural energy cycles and minimize fatigue, you can use strategies like the 90/20 rule and Pomodoro Technique.

Doing so should help you step your game up even more and prevent you from becoming mentally fried.

Zeigarnik Effect FAQs

What is the zeigarnik effect.

It’s a psychological phenomenon where humans experience intrusive thoughts about a task that was started but hasn’t been completed.

Who discovered it?

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik

When was it discovered?

How can the zeigarnik effect help boost your productivity.

It can help you overcome procrastination by simply beginning a task.

That’s because once you’ve started something, you’ll feel naturally compelled to finish it and will experience cognitive tension until you’ve done so.

What are some tools and techniques that can assist in the process?

It’s funny how a psychology student observing cafe waiters in Berlin nearly 100 years ago could impact the way we approach productivity today .

But the Zeigarnik effect has provided a window into how the human mind works, and when leveraged correctly, can help you beat procrastination with one simple trick.

Get started.

Once you do that, you should find yourself thinking of it until it’s finished, thereby raising your productivity.

Learn more about KosmoTime and see how it can help you stay on track, while becoming a productivity zen master.

Sign up for free today .

Seriously, just try it.

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problem solving zeigarnik effect

Boost Your Productivity With the Zeigarnik Effect

Boosting Productivity Illustration

You can boost your productivity by taking advantage of the Zeigarnik effect.

How it all started

The effect is named for Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist. As the story goes, she was out for dinner one night at a restaurant in Berlin with a large group of colleagues when she noticed her waiter’s impressive ability to remember all the complex food and drink orders. After everyone had finished eating and had left the restaurant, Zeigarnik realized that she had forgotten her purse, so she walked back, found the waiter who had served them, and asked for his help. But he did not remember her; where had she been sitting?

In a series of experiments [1] she asked different groups of children and adults to complete around 18 simple tasks, such as stringing beads, solving puzzles, doing math problems, and folding paper. She allowed half of the participants to complete their tasks and interrupted the other half partway through, asking them to move onto something else. An hour later, she asked the participants to describe what they had been working on. She found that those who had had their work interrupted were about twice as likely to remember what they had been doing as the participants who had actually completed the tasks.

Her string of experiments also revealed some modifying factors: tasks that were interrupted in the middle or toward the end were more likely to be recalled than those that were interrupted near the beginning, tasks that were experienced as difficult or beyond a person’s capacity were generally forgotten, and people who were tired were more likely to recall finished tasks. There were also significant differences between people’s performances, with those who were more “ambitious” — that is, competitive — or more interested in the task at hand being better able to recall unfinished tasks and quicker to forget tasks when they were finished.

The “psychic tension” from unfinished tasks can be utilized to enhance memory.

How it works

The current thinking is that the Zeigarnik effect is caused by the way our memories work.

Understanding the Zeigarnik effect and how it works gives you opportunities to increase your productivity.

How to make it work for you

You know that you’ve got a deadline in a week and you’re inclined to leave the whole thing till the 11th hour. Don’t. Just start somewhere. Block out 20 to 30 minutes of your time, and get stuck in. You don’t have to start with the hardest bit; try something easy first. Once you’ve made a start on your task, however trivial, it will niggle away in the back of your mind and nudge you to do a bit more… and a bit more… until it’s done.

The Zeigarnik effect can also help us to understand and work within our limitations. If you have a tendency to keep too many balls in the air and you start to feel swamped, knowing that intrusive thoughts tend to accompany uncompleted tasks should help you to appreciate that each new task is essentially an interruption of whatever you were doing before. This should motivate you to set reasonable limits on the amount of multitasking you attempt, thereby increasing your work performance while reducing your frustration.

Notably, neither group had actually done any studying for the exam. The Zeigarnik effect may be less an alarm that keeps chirping until a task is completed and more a prompt from our subconscious to urge us to make a plan. As soon as this plan is formed, the subconscious mind can stop harassing the conscious mind and allow it to relax until it’s time to resume the task as scheduled.

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problem solving zeigarnik effect

Zapping the Zeigarnik Effect: One Giant Leap for Your Productivity

problem solving zeigarnik effect

The Problem with Uncompleted Tasks

Have you ever had the feeling that you should be doing something else when working on a task? Or had the thought of unfinished business creep up on you at the most random moments? I’ve been experiencing this a lot recently because of the difficulties I’ve faced in juggling my own learning projects. Admittedly, these problems are self-imposed in my case but I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have experienced similar problems in their own learning or at work. This year, I set myself the challenge of learning Spanish and Mandarin simultaneously. While I’d planned out an effective strategy for learning both languages I found that I wasn’t leaving enough time to create content for my website, MetaLearn, which convinced me to put Mandarin on hold a couple of months ago. Since then, I continued to make great progress with Spanish but felt a rising level of anxiety about the incomplete state of my Mandarin learning. This really started to bother me to the point where my studying Spanish was a constant reminder of not studying Mandarin — I felt guilty that I wasn’t following through on the challenge I’d set myself, which was making the whole experience less enjoyable. The conversations I’ve had with friends about this experience convinced me that staying unconsciously occupied with unfinished tasks, which often manifests itself in the terror of the incomplete to do list, is a problem people face in all areas of life, not just in learning. So I decided to investigate it in more depth and find the solution.

The Origins of the Zeigarnik Effect

It turns out that the effect that my friends and I discussed has been studied quite extensively in experimental psychology and was first formally identified almost a century ago. One evening in 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian student of psychology at the University of Berlin, went out for dinner with a group of classmates and teachers to a restaurant in town. Bluma noticed that the waiter who served the group took the orders of the diners without making any notes and did the same for all the other tables. She expected the worst, but to her surprise, the waiter served everyone exactly what they ordered. After leaving, Bluma realised that she’d forgotten her scarf inside so returned to the restaurant and asked the waiter if he had seen it. Amazingly, the waiter didn’t even remember her, much less where she had been sitting. “How can you not remember me with the memory you have?” Bluma asked. “I just keep the orders in mind” replied the waiter. This incident intrigued Bluma and inspired her to conduct a series of studies to see if this behaviour was common in others. What she found, became knows as the Zeigarnik effect — the tendency to experience common thoughts about something that has been left incomplete. Bluma’s explanation for the incident at the restaurant was that the waiter was able to keep the orders so clearly in mind because they had not been completed. This helped the waiter do his job, but it’s not too hard to imagine how lingering thoughts of unfinished tasks could be a problem in a world of where many have ever expanding to do lists. Studies haves shown that the lack of closure from unfinished tasks causes the brain to continue exerting effort related to that task, even if we’re not consciously focused on it. We can only eliminate this if we clarify or complete the task.

Overworked Phones and Clever Marketers

If we use the analogy of a smartphone, having lots of tasks incomplete is similar to leaving lots of apps running on your phone. It will make you less effective at whatever task you’re working on — or whatever app you’re currently using  - because part of your working memory is engaged with those unfinished tasks. This is something that’s capitalised on by marketers and advertisers all the time. It’s used in TV shows to make sure you show up to the next episode — several threads are kept open so that they are labelled as “to be continued” in your mind. It’s also why a video game in which you have to complete multiple missions will make you spend days of your life trying to complete it. In my case, I was experiencing the Zeigarnik effect because I hadn’t been fulfilling the task I’d originally set myself. When I was studying Spanish, the act of learning the language was an intermittent reminder that I wasn’t spending the same time on Mandarin, but I continued to push away the associated anxiety without properly dealing with the incomplete task .

Zap the Zeigarnik Effect

The good news is that this problem is easily resolved and I only truly realised the impact the Zeigarnik effect was having on me when I tackled the issue head on and felt the feeling of relief from doing so. The answer for me simply involved taking the time out to find out what was actually going on in my head, and define the next action. Unsurprisingly learning Mandarin came out on top of the list of uncompleted tasks but once I clarified what was causing the anxiety, I set a specific date to restart and created a plan of attack to integrate it into my schedule. Problem solved — and it felt like a silverback gorilla had been lifted off of my shoulders. You could argue that the language challenge I set myself was overly ambitious — and many people, including experienced language learners warned me of it before starting. But that’s not really the point. Regardless of whether the tasks are self imposed or not, I think it’s easy to be unconscious of the impact that uncompleted tasks can have on our ability to focus on anything, whether it’s learning a language, writing an article or flying a plane. When we capture what’s going on in our head, we achieve the sense of completion needed to eliminate the cognitive load of unfinished tasks. This is a core component of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) workflow, which many productivity enthusiasts and entrepreneurs swear by. GTD encourages you to capture everything that’s in your head on a regular basis and to clarify each item either by specifying a next action, or declaring the item unnecessary and dismissing it from your list. What I’ve learned from my experience is that having a lot of pending tasks or isn’t what troubles us — it’s the anxiety caused by having a lot of things undefined in our heads and no clear plan of action to complete them. Even the act of planning next actions that may never materialise give us the peace of mind to focus on the most important thing right now. 

1) Capture Everything

Get a blank sheet of paper and write down everything that comes in to your head. I mean everything — including the groceries you need to pick up and the phone call you need to make to a friend.

2) Define and Eliminate

Once you’ve captured the uncompleted tasks in your life identify which ones actually need to be done. A large amount may no longer be relevant and can be dismissed.

3) Define a Next Action and Do It

If a task takes less than 2 minutes, then do it now (à la GTD). If it takes longer specify the next action and put it in your calendar or delegate it to someone else if you have the luxury of doing so. All that’s left after this is to feel the lightness of your regained mental clarity and focus on the most important thing right now, whether that’s working on a learning project or enjoying a conversation with a friend at dinner.

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The question is the answer part 2: why we stop asking questions and how to start again, the question is the answer part 1: the questions that matter most, how to master the art of listening, overcoming the fear of public speaking: 3 strategies from the ancient greeks on the art of rhetoric, related podcasts, ml200: taking action, living your values & the path to human progress, ml199: questions, curiosity & the death of expertise, ml198: creativity, genius and the gift & market economies, ml197: emotion, human nature & mental health culture, related videos, hack your learning with the free ml starter pack, more from the metasphere.

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