The Zeigarnik Effect: why we may well need to take a break to achieve our best results…
To start something and not finish it is, in most cases, the least effective way to get results. However, the Zeigarnik Effect proves differently. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik happened upon a phenomenon of the human mind when he noticed that people tend to have better recall of the information and details of a situation once their train of thought has been interrupted.
A classic example comes in the form of a waiter being asked to provide information from the orders of some of his tables. He found that he could recall significantly more details from those who had not yet paid their bill compared to those whose orders were completed and paid.
The premise being that once we complete something we naturally place it in a different compartment of our brain as ‘done’. When something is pending we keep it in a place where it carries more tension, at the forefront of our minds. It is this filing type system that allows us to recall things from current and ongoing situations and makes searching for those ‘stored’ scenarios all the more difficult.
For students, it is thought that stopping studies to switch to something else, such as simply taking a break or even changing to another subject, can aid in helping them to remember that which they learnt before. You can think of it in terms of open ended loops; things which we start but didn’t finish which linger in our consciousness or “the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete”. The restlessness our mind experiences when we neglect to complete something creates an unfulfilled anxiety and stores it close-by.
It is an interesting effect as it may well serve us in being able to remember certain things better, however, when we have an overload of unfinished business we may start to feel disturbed by the level of traffic in our brains. When this occurs, we will always be distracted or distractible and may revert back to any one of our open loops at any time; this may prevent us from being able to focus on new things and become a detriment rather than a recollective aid. To prevent us from having a swarming hive of unfinished activity in our brains there are certain precautions we can take. Write down all those bits and pieces that are floating around without fullstops, and make a list of your unfinished business. Once they are on ‘paper’ you will begin to be able to focus better on other things. The list will not go away of course, it will remain active and awaiting your attention but it may reduce in weight and urgency once it has been acknowledged and written down and perhaps even an allocated time frame as to when they will reach completion.
It is an interesting method to use when we know we have something we really want to accomplish but can’t quite find the motivation to begin. Rather than continue to procrastinate, we can put the Zeigarnik Effect into good use. By simply starting the task, we have created a seed which will remain at the forefront of our minds all the way up until we reach closure on it. If we fail to continue with the task, our minds will not rest and so it will continue to be a pending consideration until the time comes when we either abort the mission or complete it.
For this to be an effective way to ‘get the job done’ it seems that a timeframe or some form of a plan needs to be outlined. If the task drags on for months, or even years, it is just taking up precious space in your consciousness as well as causing unnecessary tension in our minds. Psychologists claim that a build up of such tension can result in a negative impact on our sleep patterns, trigger anxiety symptoms and further impact on a person’s mental and emotional resources. Therefore we need to process and finalise these tasks within a reasonable amount of time.
When used in a healthy way the “Zeigarnik effect can promote mental well-being by motivating someone to complete tasks, develop healthier habits, set goals and resolve issues that are being postponed”, claims Hadassah Lipszyc, CBT psychologist. “Completing tasks successfully can provide a sense of accomplishment whilst increasing one’s self esteem and confidence. Additionally, a person who can find closure for stressful events or tasks will likely experience a long-term positive impact on their psychological well-being.”
So, interruptions can prove useful, yet if we let the postponement stagnate it can become detrimental. Set your task, set your goal, and give yourself a timeframe that you can work with. This can alter, it isn’t set in stone but a plan will help us to make sense of and find closure in all that we set out to accomplish.
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