The other day I was in a restaurant and a waiter came to take our order. He listened to multiple people and walked away without writing anything down. Before too long he came back with everyone’s correct order. I was impressed! He said he was able to remember while taking orders, and then once they were fulfilled, he simply forgot them and moved on. How can the brain hyper-remember like this? It turns out that this ability has a name: the “Zeigarnik Effect.” In simple terms, the human brain tends to focus on and remember in-process tasks at a higher level than it does completed ones. Can this hold a key to productivity?
Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik, for whom the effect is named, studied this phenomenon back in the 1920s. Her research showed that when we are engaged on a task (drafting a report, watching a TV series, playing a game, etc.), the brain is highly effective at retaining relevant data, keeping the various bits and bytes in the forefront of our minds. In contrast, once we are finished with whatever it is, the brain seems to sense that this information is no longer critical and relocates it to more of a “long term storage” location in our minds. Perhaps this explains why, back when I was a student, I was able to memorize information long enough to take an exam, but then after the exam was over, found it hard to recall.
Zeigarnik’s research further showed that the brain performs a “hold tight” response when we are interrupted from a task. It’s as if the brain knows we need to remember every little detail for when we come back to whatever it is we were doing. TV and movie producers take advantage of this by inserting cliffhangers at the end to keep us engaged in the storyline until the next season or movie is released.
The Zeigarnik effect reveals how efficient the brain truly is, enabling us to easily summon what is needed without being overwhelmed by information that is no longer relevant (earworms and commercial jingles notwithstanding). In other words, the brain is perpetually prioritizing and organizing. How great is that? This reminds me of the approach I take when designing storage systems for physical belongings:
- Keep what you use all the time close at hand (e.g., on an eye-level shelf, in a top drawer, in the entryway, etc.).
- Move things you use infrequently to less convenient spots (e.g., on a bottom shelf, in another room, in a bin in the attic, etc.).
The question, then, is: How can we take advantage of this amazing brain process to improve productivity?
Initiate to Activate
First, it seems that there is great value in simply initiating work on a task in order to get our minds engaged. Once we take even a small step, the brain will shift the project to the “high priority” zone and will keep popping relevant thoughts into our head. These can serve as recurring nudges to continue doing a little bit more, keeping us motivated and on track until the task is finished. Until we begin, unaddressed tasks on a list somewhere can be easily forgotten or ignored, rearing their ugly heads only in a moment of urgency.
Plan Tactical Breaks
Since the brain seems to heighten memory when interrupted, we can improve our retention of information simply by taking planned breaks. Rather than cram a lot into our heads all at once, we can intentionally and temporarily step away to a different activity. This type of mental departure will trigger the brain to “hold on” to the material until we return, which can help us remember it better. Note that I’m not recommending you be repeatedly interrupted (see below), but rather than you periodically switch activities as a way to improve memory. For instance, if you are studying, when you get to the end of a section or chapter, walk to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee.
In addition to helping improve personal productivity, the Zeigarnik can be harnessed to engage others. We can create our own “cliffhangers” to get and keep people involved. For instance, rather than tell a child to do a long list of tasks after which we will read him a story, we can instead begin reading a story, then pause at a natural breaking point and ask him to put a toy away, resuming the book after he is finished. Once the child’s mind is invested in the story, he is motivated to complete the chore so he can come back and hear the rest.
We can also seed information on a topic for discussion that we hope to discuss in the near future as a way to capture attention and interest. For example, we might say to our partner, “I’d like to talk about planning our summer vacation this weekend. Here is some information I found on one location. Could you take a look and let me know what you think this weekend?” Once others have “opened a tab” in their brains on a topic, their brains will be engaged, rendering them more likely to contribute when the topic is discussed than if they had walked in cold.
Manage Cognitive Load
Admittedly, the Zeigarnik effect can have some negative effects. For example, if we pressure ourselves to multitask, or perpetually bounce around from one activity to another, our brains can struggle to figure out what deserves top “memory priority.” This can potentially leave us feeling overwhelmed, and/or make it hard to focus on anything at all. We don’t want to be like an old-fashioned pinball machine flashing “tilt” and shutting down. Instead, we want to manage our cognitive load, giving our brains guidance as to what is worth remembering. This can be done in a couple of ways.
- When focus is needed, minimize unwanted distractions as much as possible. Whereas planned breaks are healthy, unpredictable interruptions can confuse the brain, sapping our energy and diluting our focus. When it comes time to work, turn off notifications, “unplug” the phone, turn off the internet, or switch to a browser that doesn’t remember social media logins. You can accomplish more in ten minutes of focused effort than in an hour of distracted engagement.
- At the end of the day, make a list of your unfinished tasks, being sure to capture where you are on each one and noting what your next steps will be. Writing things down is a way of offloading your thoughts and helps to alleviate the “hanging over your shoulder” anxiety that can accompany anything outstanding.
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We keep learning more about the human brain and how it functions. Why not take advantage of some of its built-in efficiencies?
Have you ever experienced the Zeigarnik effect?