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The Lever #023: Closing the Loop - How the Zeigarnik Effect Will Help You Start Finishing

Everything you start becomes an open loop, slowly spinning until the task is complete.

The effect was discovered in a Viennese restaurant in the 1920's.

Here is why it is, and how to use this to your advantage.


But first:

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It all Started in a Viennese Cafe...

Have you ever been to a restaurant where the waiter or waitress took orders for the entire table without writing a single thing down, and wondered how do they do that?

In 1920's Vienna, Bluma Zeigernik wondered that same thing.

A student at the University of Berlin by day, Zeigernak also worked as a waitress in a busy restaurant by night.

Zeigernak found that she could remember the details of the orders that were still in progress, even when they were complex, but she forgot the details of the orders once they were complete. She began to wonder how and why incomplete tasks stayed in people's minds, and whether this had any effect on memory and attention.

Her time at university was spent as a research assistant to Kurt Lewin, the founder of the Gestalt school of psychology. Lewin encouraged her to pursue her observation and design experiments to test the theory.

Zeigernak ran with the idea, and ran a series of experiments here participants were asked to complete a series of tasks, some of which were interrupted before they could be completed. She found that participants were more likely to remember and recall the interrupted tasks than the completed ones.

She theorized that the human mind has a natural tendency to remember and focus on unfinished tasks, creating a sense of tension and a desire to complete them. This led the publishing of her groundbreaking paper, The retention of completed and uncompleted actions (1927).

An incomplete task has greater psychological tension than a complete task, and is thus better remembered." (Zeigarnik, 1927)

Under Tension

When you start a task it creates an open loop, that spins and spins in your mind.

In 2011 the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper by Masicampo and Baumeister which found that too many unfinished tasks can lead to negative effects on mental health, including increased stress, anxiety, and depression.

Another study in 2015 found that the number of unfinished tasks a person has can impact their ability to focus and complete future tasks.

So having too many open loops will not only effect your health, but will hamper your ability to finish future tasks! Why is that?

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental discomfort or tension experienced when holding two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or ideas - or when their beliefs and actions are not consistent.

The theory suggests that people strive for consistency, so when they act inconsistently they experience discomfort and psychological stress, along with a desire to eliminate the dissonance. To resolve this dissonance, individuals may alter their beliefs, attitudes or actions, or rationalize their beliefs or actions to align with each other.

Beware the dissonance trap! It can be easier to alter your beliefs to match your actions (I earned this cupcake) rather than altering your actions to match your beliefs. This leads to you being okay with taking actions that are inconsistent with the results you want to achieve.

The Zeigarnik Effect creates a state of cognitive dissonance when you are left with an incomplete task. It creates a contradiction between the belief that the task is incomplete and the belief that it should be completed. These become open loops in your mind that begs for closure, leading to a feeling of discomfort.

The benefit is that this can motivate you to remember the task and finish it, in order to reduce that tension.

A Relentless Focus on Finishing

How then can you use the Zeigernak effect to your advantage?

By having a relentless focus on finishing.

Finish what you start. Work on ONE THING until it is complete. Don't open more loops until the last ones are closed.

Millers Law (which I'll cover in a future issue) states that humans can remember about five things (plus or minus two) at any given time.

Hint - it's probably closer to three than it is seven.

The more loops you open, the more things you have to hold in your mind at the same time.

Once you overload your brain things will start to be truly forgotten. The urgency will disappear and the task will go uncompleted.

Instead, focus on a small number of tasks each day:

• One top priority task

• One long-term needle-mover

• One "have to do"

The Clarifying Question

Unsure what your top priority task should be?

Ask yourself, "If I only finished one thing today, what would that have to be in order to feel like the day was a success?"

Start that thing. Finish that thing.

Remember, an unfinished task is as good as not started. The value comes from the completion.

Close the loops.


When you are ready, here are a few ways I can help:

1. Subscribe to The Lever (if you haven't already)

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