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The Zigarnik Effect Is Not Allowing You To Forget Your Dreams

You’ll either pursue them or be haunted by them.

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

Are you familiar with the crystal merchant from the Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo? After Santiago, the main character arrives in Morroco, he gets robbed and ends up finding a job in a crystal shop. After a while, since the business was doing well, he suggests the owner should expand it. The crystal merchant resists these changes, claiming he is content with his small business. Just as he fears pursuing his dream of traveling to Mecca because he worries he won’t have anything to live for if his dream is realized. So he would much rather be hunted by his dream. Whilst Santiago does exactly the opposite and chooses to go after his: reaching the pyramids of Egypt.

“Perhaps it is better to be like the crystal merchant, never go to Mecca but just live out of the fantasy and desire of reaching it. But I can always go back to being a shepherd. I’ll never forget how to take care of sheep. But I might not have another opportunity to reach the Pyramids of Egypt.”

Now, of course, the merchant worrying about not having a reason to live for anymore after pursuing his dream is merely an excuse. Which most likely stems from the fear of getting out of his comfort zone and taking the journey there. He completely dismisses what opportunities he might encounter on the way there because he fears the unknown.

The bottom line is: even though Santiago and the merchant ended up making different decisions, they both had something in common: a dream that kept haunting them.

I got my BA in Psychology in 2013. My dream has been to become a psychologist ever since high school but by the end of my graduation, I was entertaining other things. Like traveling. The reason was much deeper: fear of being too young and not well-prepared at that time. Anyway, I ended up taking a 7-year break from my studies. To travel.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love traveling, meeting new people, expanding my horizons. But my dream of becoming a psychotherapist has always been at the back of my mind. For a while, I forgot a bit about it and got distracted by other things. Even if it did surface from time to time, I kept on putting it aside.

A while ago, it came back stronger than ever, during my volunteering year in South Africa. So, after 7 years, I came to terms with the fact that my dream would simply not let go of me. Even worse, it started haunting me. And I knew I had to do something about it. That’s when I made the decision I had to go back to finish my studies.

“When it comes to your dreams you have two choices: pursue them or be haunted by them.”

— Mel Robbins

That’s why when I read this quote by Mel Robbins’s a few days ago, it all made sense. It clicked! Since I am more cognitively rather than emotionally inclined in regards to information processing, finding a scientific explanation for what had happened made me beyond joyous.

Yes, there are many motivational videos and articles out there on how we all have dreams and goals and how to achieve them. But I have always been a bit unsatisfied with the lack of logical reasoning behind it.

Thus, I decided to write this article explaining the psychological mechanisms involved.

So, if you’re like me and want a more scientific approach as to why your dreams haunt you unless you do something about it, keep reading.

Have you ever caught yourself thinking about a task you didn’t get to finish because someone interrupted you? A conversation you left unfinished?A cliffhanger movie that made you watch the next episode until you binged on the whole series? An idea for a Medium article that just wouldn’t leave you alone whilst you were at work? A dream you once had but then put on hold? If so, then you have experienced what in psychology we call the Zeigarnik effect.

According to the Good therapy website, the Zeigarnik effect is a psychological phenomenon describing a tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks or events more easily than tasks that have been completed.

This phenomenon was observed by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik while sitting in a busy restaurant in the 1920s. She noticed a very interesting fact about the waiters. They could successfully remember the details of the orders for the tables that had yet to receive and pay for their food. However, as soon as the food was delivered and the check was closed, the waiters’ recollection of the orders seemed to vanish from their minds.

In order to support her theory, Zeigarnik performed a series of experiments where half of the participants who were asked to complete simple tasks such as finishing a puzzle or placing beads on a string, were interrupted halfway through. One hour later, she asked the participants to recall the activities they were assigned to.

Zeigarnik then discovered that participants that have been interrupted had a better remembrance of their activities compared to the ones who were allowed to finish the task without any perturbance. In a paper published in 1927 called “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks”, she stated that that the adult participant was able to remember the unfinished tasks 90 percent more often than they did the finished tasks.

According to the study Unfinished tasks foster rumination and impair sleeping if the task at hand is challenging though, left unfinished, can often lead to frequent and stressful intrusive thoughts. These negative thoughts can disturb sleeping patterns, promote anxiety, possibly even contributing to maladaptive behaviors.

Psychologist Kendra Cherry explained how information processing happens in our brain: 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.

This is what the Zigarnik effect does. You keep remembering certain information because it gets pulled back into awareness. Stimuli from your external environment keep reminding you of it.

Can the Zeigarnik effect help you pursue your dreams?

The answer is yes. You can start using the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage.

Here’s how:

  • You dim the voice of your inner critic

If you constantly remember your dream but choose to ignore it, it will end up damaging your self-image. Believing all those stories your inner critic tells you about not being good enough to pursue your dream, will result in a lack of assertiveness. Which long term will lead to low self-esteem. Dr. Liz White wrote a brilliant article on learning how to manage your inner critic. This is a great first step that gets you closer to your dream!

  • You assess the importance level

Now that you know the mechanism behind it, you have the assess how important the dream is for you. The Zaigarnik effect is most commonly experienced when you are in the immediate vicinity of a stimulus that reminds you of it. The subconscious will alert you. For instance, if you really want to travel, you’ll start seeing travel ads or photos everywhere. If it really matters to you, you’re going to pursue it.

  • You overcome procrastination

The next aspect is helping you overcome procrastination. Put the Zeigarnik effect to work. Literally. Start by taking action, no matter how small. You might not finish it all at once, but each small step you take puts you closer to your final goal. Remember: small steps are better than no steps.

Side note:

“Your dreams should be YOUR dreams. They shouldn’t be based on what anyone else says or does.“

— Tim David

You have to identify whether your dream is yours or it has been deeply rooted in your subconscious by society. If thinking of it makes you feel pressured and burdened, then it’s most likely not yours. If there is heart and mind coherence, and you are filled with joy and passion whilst thinking of it then you know it’s yours. Why is this important? Because if you will achieve a dream that is not yours, you will be left unfulfilled.

Here’s a 3 step guide to help you go after your dreams:

  1. Do the inner work

Impostor syndrome, fear of critique, or feelings of anxiety can get in the way. The core belief of these feelings is that you’re not good enough. What’s important is to learn to discern who does this internal voice belongs to. Is it yours or have you internalized it from one of your parents? Whose voice is it that tells you you’re not good enough? Perhaps your parents or caregivers were very critical of you as a child. This is a crucial step in becoming more aware. Once you’ve established that, give yourself permission to have what your heart desires. You are worthy of it!

2. Celebrate small wins

You probably think: ‘I don’t deserve to celebrate until I accomplish my dream!’. But here’s the thing. You actually need to celebrate small wins in order to be able to enjoy big ones. It will not only make the process much easier but you will learn to enjoy the journey. It will not only get you closer to your dream by marking the milestones but you will also become more motivated to achieve it. Cheer yourself on! You have the right to celebrate yourself!

3. Become aware of opportunities

Going towards your dream is a step-by-step process. Your mind is used to be quite rigid when you think about the ways in which you can achieve your dream. It likes being in control and cannot predict unexpected challenges or detours.

Here’s the thing: you have to make sure your mind does not get in the way. Getting there is a journey and even if there is an opportunity coming your way you don’t think it’s worth pursuing, think twice about it. It might give you the chance to learn new skills or meet people who can help you further in reaching your dream.


The Zigarnik effect reminds you of unfinished tasks or dreams you have put on the backburn.

You can put the Zigarnik effect to work in your favor. Thus, you’ll become aware of your dream, be able to assess its importance, and overcome procrastination.

You can achieve your dream by doing the inner work, celebrate small wins, and welcome the opportunities coming your way.

By doing the things above, you will unlock tremendous resources of confidence, resilience, and strength you didn’t even know you had!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“Don’t let your dreams become your regrets, chase them, go after them!”

— Catherine Pulsifer

So, what are you going to do about your dreams?

Thank you for reading!

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