A Key to Productivity?

Picture of a woman and her brain. Zeigarnik Effect. A key to productivity?
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

Energize Involvement

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

*     *     *

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?

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22 thoughts on “A Key to Productivity?”

  1. This is great information, Seana. Our brains are capable of so much. It’s great to know how some of the things we do (like taking planned breaks) can help us while other things we do truly have a negative impact (like constantly being interrupted mid-flow). It’s also interesting to me that this concept was created in the 1920s. I love the idea of creating cliffhangers. We can do this with our clients – get to a good stopping point and have them switch gears (maybe relocate one or two items) before returning to finish the main project. Thank you for this fascinating thought to begin the week.

    1. I agree that thinking about how to use cliffhangers might improve engagement and motivation in those around us. The brain just “blows my mind,” LOL!

  2. I love how you describe the Zeigarnik Effect and how we can work with it to help our brain function its best. I also appreciate how you specifically relate the Effect to organizing and productivity. Like everything, it seems optimal when we balance what we’re doing. Focus is great, but taking breaks is essential. Not only does it increase engagement, but it allows us to reprioritize.

    One of the things that also effects our functioning is sleep and hydration. The brain (and body) needs both. So I’m guessing that without enough sleep or having enough to drink, the Zeigarnik Effect could be null and void.

    1. I’m sure you are totally right about that, Linda. I am always suggesting that my clients get some water. Dehydration is REAL, and sometimes it can present as exhaustion.

      The whole brain science thing is so interesting to me. This one popped up as particularly relevant to what I do, so I thought it was worth writing about. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Thank you for sharing this information, Seana. Your section about Plan Tactical Breaks is critical in my business. The breaks help me when I am being creative, writing a blog post, working on social media posts for clients, working on ads for clients, etc… Stopping and writing down a thought or idea for future tasks allows my brain to pause. After I write down the thought, I can easily and quickly refocus back on the task at hand.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Important Tasks to Do to Organize Your MoneyMy Profile

    1. I definitely need to continually track the status of where I am on my various projects and tasks. I don’t want to have to spend 10 minutes figuring out where I left off, but rather would prefer to just jump right back in.

  4. I love that an experience with a waiter brought this information to us! Brain research is helping us more and more in practical ways.

    I am wondering about sleep as a part of productivity too. Research shows that when we learn and then sleep information goes into deeper memory. That can be most useful for those learning any information.

    1. I’ve heard that also, about sleep. I’ve also heard that using a specific scent while studying, and then reintroducing that scent at the needed moment can help heighten memory. All of it is so interesting to me!

  5. This is a fabulous post, Seana. I learned about the Zeigarnik Effect in 2013, right at the end of writing my book, when it was too late to do more than mention it, but have been fascinated by the concept and how it can be harnessed — as you’ve explained so well here! Your advice is so spot-on, and I’m particularly appreciative of what you said about taking strategic, tactical breaks (which lets our brains handle the material magically) and using cliffhangers. As a child, I was taught that the best way to get excited about reading was to put a book down at the interesting part, because you’d be more inclined to get back to it.

    And I had no idea that the researcher was a woman, which makes me even more inclined to dig deeper. Hurray for Bluma Zeigarnik!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll Responds When They Say “Be Our Guest”My Profile

    1. Pretty impressive woman, I must say. I find all of this stuff so interesting. I agree with the idea of putting a book down at a cliffhanger moment… then I can’t wait to get back to it!

  6. I used to have it. I remember being amazing at the game Memory too. We go to a local ice cream parlor where they don’t write down your order. We’re always impressed because there are six of us.. and then.. they come back 17 times to make sure they got the order right. So either really get it right or write it down, people!
    Tamara recently posted…6 Hacks to Look Expensive on a BudgetMy Profile

  7. Thank you for teaching me about the “Zeigarnik Effect.” I had experienced this situation and didn’t know it had a name. A lot of times people would ask me about something that had happened in the recent past and I would say I didn’t bother to remember that fact. Now I know what is actually happening in my brain.

  8. Yes! Seana. When does multi-tasking become overload? This is an interesting phenomenon and makes me even further amazed by the human body. Thank you!

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