Use the Zeigarnik effect to tackle worry and procrastination

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian psychologist (1900-1988), who performed memory experiments to test an assumption of her supervisor, Kurt Lewin. Kurt Lewin had noticed on a terrace in Berlin that the waiters still knew very well what had been consumed at tables that had not yet paid, but knew almost nothing about the customers who had already paid their bill. Zeigarnik's experiments showed that you remember better what has not yet been completed. That also sounds very logical. Why should you remember what has already been done?  

But how can that help you with procrastination? Well, one of the explanations for the Zeigarnik effect is that you feel uncomfortable when a task is not finished. As it were, you put that task in the back of your mind (so that you remember it better) and you experience a certain tension and restlessness until you finish the task, which then gives you relaxation. That is also why you want to check your notifications every time you see a number appearing on your apps. And that's why series often end with a cliffhanger, so you definitely keep watching. So we keep binge watching. And it's the reason why you don't fall asleep if you keep on worrying about an unfinished problem at work.

You can use the Zeigarnik effect with the following tips:

  • To tackle procrastination, make sure you've already done one step of the task. So get the ball rolling. That way it is a task that has already been started and you will tend to want to finish it.
  • To avoid worrying, do just the opposite: put on your to-do list that you will think about how you are going to tackle the problem tomorrow (or a later time). This way you feel the relaxation of completing a task (i.e. you have scheduled a task) and you can close the problem for the time being.
  • Get more peace of mind by turning off unnecessary notifications on your mobile phone.

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