How to Escape the Zeigarnik Effect

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Have you ever found yourself unable to fall asleep during a trying time at work? Or distracted in the middle of a conversation or meeting by thoughts about other stuff you still need to do?

If so, you may be a victim of the Zeigarnik Effect. Its exotic name comes from the Russian researcher who discovered it in the 1920’s while observing the behavior of waiters in a restaurant. Their ability to recall pending orders, but not the ones they had just delivered, caught her attention.

The disparity relates to the effect which bears her last name. It’s the nagging feeling you get once you mentally create a “time demand”: an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future. Your subconscious, which stores each one for later retrieval, does more than sit back and wait for you to act. Instead, it begins to ping your conscious mind with a stream of reminders.

If this were to take place on rare occasions, it would be a cute phenomenon. However, if you are someone who is ambitious, you may find the reminders increasing until you start to experience a sense of overwhelm. After all, her research states that the way to get rid of the Zeigarnik Effect is to complete the task. For busy people, it’s impossible – they create hundreds. Like everyone else, they can only finish one at a time.

So, is there an escape? Fortunately, there is, according to recent research conducted at Baylor University.

Dr. Michael Scullin and his team compared two bedtime behaviors in laboratory experiments. Before falling asleep, one group of subjects wrote their to-do list for the next few days. The other recorded the tasks they accomplished during that

day. The result? This small change in technique helped the first group fall asleep faster by over 9 minutes. Why did this happen?

To understand the underlying reason, we must visit the University of Florida. Drs. Roy Baumeister and Ed Masicapmo added to Zeigarnik’s research, showing that the effect disappears when a person has a trusted system in place to manage time demands. This makes intuitive sense. There’s no need for your subconscious mind to interfere if it believes that all your tasks are being properly managed.

How does this apply to falling asleep faster? Well, offloading your tasks to a written to-do list is one way to assure your subconscious that you are on top of all your commitments. In other words, it trusts a piece of paper more than your ability to remember. Satisfied, it leaves you alone, allowing you to doze off.

But what if you possess a high IQ, genius-level memory? Can’t that be used? The answer is short but elegant – “Sure… if you happen to be a kid.” While I doubt that any readers of this column are under 12 years old, we should understand why they are an exception. The fact is, they only have a few time demands to recall. Plus, they have teachers, parents, friends, and siblings reminding them what to do.

It’s only later, when they get older, that problems occur. But they aren’t caused by age which is not a factor until their retirement years. Instead, long before then, the challenge is to find a method to cope with the relentless swell in time demands our generation faces.

What else can be used beside paper? Digital devices also work. In addition, some people offload their tasks to other folks, like their children. “Remind me to pick up your cake tomorrow, Junior.”

But the only approach which succeeds in the long term isn’t a single technique or tool but a mindset of continuous improvement, plus specific knowledge of how humans use such tools. Start by getting committed to implementing ongoing upgrades. Then, understand that your choices need to follow a pattern.

While researching the latest edition of my book I found that improvements happen in serial fashion, but they all start with an attempt to use mental reminders. When that technique fails, we graduate to better skills one step at a time, following this sequence.

Level 1 – Memory

Level 2 – Paper Lists of Tasks

Level 3 – Simple Digital Apps

Level 4 – Complex Task Management Apps

Level 5 – Digital Calendars of all Tasks

Level 6 – Administrative Assistants / Autoscheduling Programs

As you look over this list, identify your current level. With this knowledge, you can prepare yourself for the next upgrade – the one that will help you stay abreast of your dreams and aspirations.

However, be aware: the Zeigarnik Effect shows up at any level. It’s a fantastic warning mechanism which lets you know when a change is overdue. Unlike your friends, colleagues and even your conscious mind, it can’t be fooled. It will do its job, preventing you from falling asleep quickly until you wake up to its incessant, nagging call for greater personal productivity.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2016, send email to columns@fwconsulting.com

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