Thursday 09th April 19:20

Project Management: The Zeigarnik Effect

zeigarnik04_142The Zeigarnik Effect is a little-known pyschological phenomenon that says that we are more motivated to complete interrupted and incomplete tasks than we are to start new ones. In other words, if we are doing a task, in an interested and motivated way, and have to stop doing it, we'll find it hard to settle until we get back to the task and finish it. This effect has interesting implications for the way we work. But before we give you 3 tips on how to apply the Zeigarnik effect, (that's an example of how to use the effect, by the way), here's how it got its name.

How the Zeigarnik Effect Was Discovered

The Zeigarnik Effect is named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, who was born in 1901 and worked with Kurt Lewin in Vienna. One day in 1927, while sipping coffee in a restaurant in Vienna, she noticed that all the waiters seemed to remember all the orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, however, the orders evaporated from their memory. Back in the laboratory, Zeigarnik decided to test the theory on her students. She set them a range of tasks such as solving puzzles and stringing beads. In some tasks, she allowed them to finish; in others, she interrupted them half-way through. Afterwards, she discovered that the students were twice as likely to remember the interrupted tasks than the completed ones.

Why the Zeigarnik Effect Works

As a result of her studies, Bluma Zeigarnik concluded that we remember interrupted tasks better than completed ones because our brains need to close the loop on a task that we've been set. It's the reason why we get hooked on TV programmes that end with high drama full of suspense telling us, "To Be Continued Next Week". It's the secret of all long-running soap operas and cliffhanging dramas. It's also why in the 19th century, novellists, such as Charles Dickens, wrote their masterpieces in series and left their readers hanging on for more at the end of each week. It's reported that crowds would wait at the New York docks every week for the latest instalment to arrive from England, so desperate were they to know what happened.

Tips on Applying the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect has more applications than simply getting us hooked on long-running serials. Here are 3 useful tips on applying the Zeigarnik effect in your working life.

1. Make it a habit to use the Zeigarnik Effect every working day. Don't end the day with a completed task. If you do, you'll have to re-motivate yourself the next day from scratch. Leave a task unfinished, though, and you'll be keen to pick it up where you left off and see it through to a conclusion. This also allows you to start each working day with a sense of having achieved something.

2. If you are working on a lengthy project or task, stop at a point when you'd really like to go on and take a break doing something completely different. All through your break, your subconscious brain will be quietly sorting out how to complete the unfinished task. Things will then fall into place allowing you to complete the task more efficiently than if you'd carried on without stopping.

3. In any communication exercise with others, such as giving a presentation or writing sales copy, get people hooked to your message by giving them teasers. For example, in a presentation, tell them, "I'm going to show you 3 ways to motivate yourself without any effort, but first...". In written copy, you could do the same by saying, "In a minute, I'm going to show you how to double your personal income without any effort on your part...". People will be hooked and won't rest until they know how things end.

More Resources on the Zeigarnik Effect

Click here for an explanation of the Zeigarnik effect on

A detailed analysis of the Zeigarnik Effect on psychwiki here.

A YouTube video from James Lavers on the Zeigarnik Effect and its applications here.