Why Unfinished Tasks Stay in Your Brain – The Zeigarnik Effect

Ever feeling stressed out because of all the tasks you still have to finish? Feeling stress about unfinished jobs is quite common. It even has a name: the Zeigarnik effect. Here’s more on how unfinished tasks affect your memory and tips to prevent getting overwhelmed.

How unfinished tasks overload your memory

In 1927 the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was researching memory. She conducted research on waiters taking orders and came to an interesting conclusion. She conducted research on how waiters in restaurants used their memory, while serving dinner to their clients.

Once the waiters finished serving the orders, they forgot the contents of the order. Nothing special so far. However, once they only partially delivered their orders, they knew exactly what was in the order and what they still needed to deliver to the tables.

Zeigarnik found that participants, who were interrupted during a task, were able to recall the details of that specific task 90 percent better than the participants that weren’t interrupted.

This has both positive and negative implications for you in the workplace. It’s good that you are aware of them, so you can take maximum advantage of this.

How too many unfinished tasks can cause stress and anxiety

When you have too many unfinished tasks, your brain keeps on going over the details of all of these tasks. This is an important cause of stress and anxiety, because of course you prefer all of those tasks finished. Therefore, it is important that you manage the amount of unfinished tasks that go around in your head.

1.     Setting clear goals and saying no more often

By setting clear goals for what you want to achieve for the day and week, it is easier to ignore other smaller tasks. Therefore, you’ll be less inclined to keep on going over them in your head. Also, it helps you to say no to unimportant requests that other persons may ask of you. This way, it’s easier to keep the amount of tasks to a minimum.

2.     Finish tiny tasks when you’re least productive

We all have times in the day that we are most productive. Don’t waste that time with tiny tasks, but make sure to work on your priorities then. Our productivity is simply not distributed over the day in a linear fashion. I usually have less energy late in the afternoon or in the evening. Therefore, I make sure to do those tiny tasks in that timeframe.

This way I don’t have to worry about those smaller tasks anymore, and I’m still doing productive work while having less energy.

3.     Reduce anxiety if you have too many tasks

It’s important to set goals and to determine for yourself what is not important. However, this is a process and you will not change overnight. Subconsciously, you still might want to finish those unimportant tasks. Changing this is a journey. Make sure to keep prioritizing and skipping on unimportant tasks anyway.

There’s also a way to deal with the resulting anxiety called the ABCDE method. With this method, you learn to reframe an existing situation in a more positive way. Make sure to read my article in the aforementioned hyperlink if you want to know more details about this method.

How strategic procrastination can help you

Your brain processes tasks and information in the background. So when you’re in the car or taking a shower, subconsciously you’ll still be going over the tasks that were on your mind during the day.

This is a blessing in disguise for working on complex tasks. The only thing you have to do is start with that task for half an hour or an hour. Make sure to focus on that task during that timeframe, but do not put too much effort in it.

Then stop with the task unfinished. The beauty of this is that you can go and do something fun, and your brain will still be working on the problem. Also while sleeping, you will connect the problem with other information already stored in your memory to come up with novel solutions.

So why work your ass of? Just take a nap. As you see, procrastination has its time and place. However, you need to apply it in a strategic way. If you haven’t worked with focused attention on a problem, you’ll of course also not come up with a great solution by sleeping or doing something fun.

That’s it for this week. If you liked this post, don’t forget to hit the like button and share it on social media. See you back here next week for another article!

Sources / further reads:
The Zeigarnik Effect Explained

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