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Productivity Tip | Anyone heard of the Zeigarnik Effect?

A Weekly Personal Productivity series to help you get more done!

Every Thursday, I’m sharing a new Personal Productivity Tip to help you get more done. Each Productivity Tip is a remarkably simple tool or concept that can be quickly implemented to make a real difference in your personal productivity. When you apply many of them together, they’ll make a big difference in improving productivity, achieving accountability and staying focused on the things that matter the most in your life.

You may want to check out some of the posts in this Productivity series, including the the value of checklists; the importance of getting rid of the crappy stuff;  the nightmare of the cluttered mind; and that feeling of being buried all the time. You can also leverage your resources and apply the lessons of the ARCI chart and the S.M.A.R.T. goals to boost the accountability of your entire organization. One more thing. When in doubt, write it down.


What the hell is the Zeigarnik Effect?

Have you ever heard of the Zeigarnik Effect? It’s named after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, who stumbled across the notion in the 1920s that waiters remembered orders that were still unpaid better than those that were already completed. She returned to her lab, ran several experiments and further discovered that people remembered tasks better if they’d been interrupted doing them than if they’d completed them.

“Psychic Tension” drives us to closure

What she concluded has a lot to do with our short-term memory’s propensity to forget completely. The more we try to hold things in our short-term memory, the harder we have to work to remember them. It takes a lot of cognitive energy but with few results. Anyone have a different experience?

No surprise … we also seem to have a better memory for those things we have not yet finished. The “psychic tension” it creates remains a stimulus for us to keep moving forward, wrestling with that idea and continually straining to bring it to closure.

What’s the significance for Personal Productivity?

So, what does this mean for personal productivity? A bunch of things.

Don’t gasp at the size of the mountain. Head for a base camp.

First, we overburden our short-term memory trying to remember stuff we’ll forget anyway. The solution? Spend that time writing it down, effortlessly capturing it in your memory bank, er, trusted system so that it so it will show up at the appointed time and place.

We’re Masters of Procrastination!

Some like Jeremy Dean on his great PsyBlog, relate the Zeigarnik Effect to our remarkable capability for procrastination. He concludes that we’re more likely to cogitate about something that’s unfinished so that not starting something is less productive than getting it started any way you can. So, instead of gasping at the size of the mountain in front of you, get started by aiming for a base camp. Remember the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step”? When in doubt, just start.

Believe it. Momentum Drives Success

Finally, it confirms one of my precepts … that momentum has tremendous power that is often overlooked. If you build some momentum by moving toward your objective with even the smallest step, you’ll be amazed at how that wave of energy will lift your spirits and help you drive something to the next level that would otherwise languish.

What do you think?

What are you doing to defeat the Zeigarnik Effect … to overcome procrastination … to generate momentum toward your objectives? What’s working and what isn’t?

1 Comment

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  • http://thinkinprojects.com Rafal

    Beating procrastination is a constant power struggle between starting and stopping. Gaining some momentum definitely helps in making some progress however the difficulty might be how to keep it going.
    For me completing a good weekly review of my commitments usually helps to straight things up and define what needs to be done in upcoming days.
    Thanks for very interesting post.