What In The Heck Is The Zeigarnik Effect?


Our minds are pulled back to unfinished tasksYou’ve had a long day at work yet here you are, working late to cross a few things off your list. Why are you doing this? It’s probably the Zeigarnik Effect.

What’s the Zeigarnik Effect? It’s those intrusive thoughts reminding you of all the things you’ve started but haven’t quite finished. Whether rationally-speaking it’s something you want to finish it or not, it’s your mind’s sometimes incomprehensible but overwhelming desire to finish what you’ve started.

It’s also the underlying reason author and time management guru David Allen’s advises his GTD followers to write down everything that needs to be done. Unfinished tasks tend to constantly interrupt your thoughts, a sort of auto-pilot system reminding you of what needs to be completed. The more outstanding tasks you have, the more difficult it becomes for you to pursue any single objective with uninterrupted concentration. Interestingly, interrupting your efforts to finish a task before it’s complete also seems to interfere with your ability to accurately estimate your productivity, lengthening your estimate of how long you’ve spent and how long it will take you to finish according to a 1992 study by Greist-Bousquet & Schiffman.

This automatic system signals your conscious mind that you have unfinished business, providing evidence of a neurological basis for the teachings of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins and others on the crucial importance of choosing what not to do.

Peter Drucker emphasized the importance of using resources on the 10% of things that make 90% of the difference. He described leadership as doing the right things — versus management, doing things right. Likewise Jim Collins describes his “Stop Doing List” as the cornerstone of how he allocates his most valuable resource: time. 

Whether business strategy or life strategy, many of your most important decisions are about what you will not do.

So save yourself the trouble of the Zeigarnik Effect: Just don’t start what doesn’t need to be finished.

Ah, what a relief. Now we can cross that off the list.