At a cafe sat Kurt Lewin, who observed the waiters zipping around with their trays, serving food and drinks at breakneck speed. Apparently, they seemed to remember incomplete tabs a lot better—once a tab was fully paid for, they could not recall that order when asked about it later.
This also seemed to suggest that simply ‘completing’ a task can lead to it being forgotten but having it incomplete helped to ensure that they can remember later on.
At that point in time, Lewin was a professor at the University of Berlin, where Bluma Zeigarnik was studying at. Having heard about the suggestion, Zeigarnik sought to test out the hypothesis in an experimental setting.
In her experiment, participants were asked to complete a series of separate tasks, which are either types of assembly or type of puzzles. For half of the participants, the experiment supervisor subtly interrupted them. The supervisor ignored the other half of the participants.
An hour later, Zeigarnik interviewed every participant, asking them to recall details about the task they attempted.
The results were clear: it confirmed Lewin’s initial observation. Interrupted tasks were recalled 90% better than completed tasks without disturbance.
This suggests another conclusion: when we leave things incomplete, we actively retain them in our minds. Completing that thing will chuck that task out of our memory.
Later on, we know this as the Zeigarnik effect.
Today, the Zeigarnik effect is a commonly-applied design principle. It is the reason why you see progress bars. It is also the reason why LinkedIn wants you to complete their profile, telling you that missing a certain part of your profile makes it 85% complete.
Why do we remember incomplete things better than things we’ve already done? It’s due to the way we think:
- Incomplete things create intrusive thoughts, which can appear at any time to remind you of it
- Leaving things incomplete creates a thought that you’ve left a goal behind, which can pop up in your mind while you’re busy with other things
- It creates a strong motivation to complete the task since you’re already halfway through it
This all origin from what psychologists call ‘cognitive tension’.
While the effect can occur whenever there’s an incomplete task, it also depends on external factors. For instance:
- The reason behind why we started the task
- How much reward we are expecting, in proportion to the size of the task
- The frequency, type and time of interruption (e.g. interruptions during the “deep flow” state)
Tasks kept in our short-term memory are typically in transit. To cement them in long-term memory, you’d have to rehearse it constantly.
The twist comes in the application. To create the Zeigarnik effect, you need to:
- Create something for people to participate
- Terminate prematurely to cause cognitive tension
- Request for participants to recall later on
For instance, movie trailers are created for people to participate in. The plot is outlined in an exciting, suspenseful manner but without closure, thus making it incomplete. That premature termination creates cognitive tension and thus compels the viewer to recall about it.
However, too much cognitive tension can backfire. We work slower and less productively—oftentimes, this happens at the workplace. It is also the reason why we can get distracted and stressed over long backlogs and ironically, procrastinate on addressing the problems.
Many companies today are using software to help them track, organise and manage their work. While they are meant to give clarity, poor usage can lead to the canvas becoming a warzone full of tasks and conflicting priorities. When managers constantly pump work down the pipeline, inefficiency will occur.
The key is to ensure that work performance is kept at a consistent level.
The Zeignarik effect is the reason why procrastination, disengagement, cognitive intrusion, and inefficiencies can occur. It plagues our work and manifests in our minds, creating many mental barriers to cross in order to get back our momentum.
Leaders can do a few things to temper the Zeignarik effect:
- Apply the Pareto Principle at work (also known as the 80/20). Align the team and help them understand what are the overarching priorities. The team should know that, in the event of an interruption, where should they focus their efforts on rather than spread them out evenly.
- Create a habit of recalling tasks that have been completed (e.g. draw links to past work during meetings). Software can be used to have an archive/log to document the work that is done. Things in the past are difficult to recall but there are times where you need a reference.
- Colour-code and physically indicate what are the priorities. For instance, on software, you can add a number to the project. On glass walls, you can stick a post-it note. Ensure that the team can easily refer to it in case of any doubt.
- Be reasonable with work. While, theoretically, our potential is unlimited, it can still make many heads spin when they see a plethora of incomplete tasks. Adjust based on individual levels and provide support when necessary.
- Create a physical space or time for deep work. Interruptions create cognitive tension and entering a ‘deep flow’ state of mind is key to producing high-quality work. However, interruptions can leave things
While the effect can be subtle, it can accrue and transform into something major. For instance, multi-tasking over a long period of time can erode work performance efficiency.
By understanding the Zeignarik effect, leaders can thus learn another skill in their leadership toolbox.