Remembering details of unfinished tasks more than completed ones is common. It’s possible to harness this tendency’s positive effects.

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Most of us have likely had the common experience of lying awake at night thinking about an unfinished task, feeling stress and anxiety about its completion.

However, it’s probably more unlikely that you’ve felt this same level of urgency with tasks you’ve already completed.

In fact, you may not remember much about the chores you’ve checked off your to-do list. This is because your brain might “delete” information it sees as unnecessary after it’s been used.

Known as the Zeigarnik effect, this theory can help explain one of the many complex ways memory works.

And while it may cause discomfort with unfinished jobs, you can also harness it to improve overall mental health and peace of mind.

The Zeigarnik effect is a theory attributed to Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik describing the tendency of the human memory to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks more easily than completed ones.

For example, you might remember more about things you’re currently working on or are not quite finished with yet. If you become interrupted while working on something, you may remember more about that task, too.

However, you could also be more likely to forget the details of tasks completed in full, uninterrupted. This is because the human brain has a tendency to “dump” or erase information that may no longer be needed, removing it from your memory.

Origins and history

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered this theory after being amazed by a café waiter’s ability to remember her and her colleagues’ lengthy food and drink orders without writing them down.

However, when she returned to the café a short time later to retrieve something, the waiter didn’t recognize her or remember serving her party.

Fascinated, Zeigarnik questioned the waiter about his memory. He admitted to frequently forgetting all orders once they’re delivered and all patrons once their check is paid.

The waiter’s uncompleted tasks were all that mattered — and that is how he was able to do such a fantastic job.

The best way to understand the Zeigarnik effect is to look at some real-life examples.

Picture yourself at home watching your favorite TV show. At the end of the episode, it ends with a cliff-hanger. You might be eager to learn more because the story is unfinished. That’s the Zeigarnik effect.

Another example of the Zeigarnik effect is typically found in education. It’s common for students to take exams in school that require studying and cramming before the exam. But once the exam is over, they might experience difficulty recalling the information they learned.

This lapse in memory is because the student’s brain might tell them they no longer have use for the information learned for the test and remove it from memory.

Another example is after a job interview. You may be focused on all the things you perceive as wrong that happened during the interview, rather than the positive points.

But after you get hired, all those negative thoughts might fall away as you begin training for a new role.

The Zeigarnik effect theory may point to a positive impact on mental health.

First, the subconscious mind will urge your conscious mind to make a detailed plan when presented with a task. As soon as the plan comes to fruition, the subconscious no longer needs to remind the conscious mind to work toward the goal. The result is a more relaxed mind.

When the Zeigarnik effect is active in the brain, you may constantly be setting goals for yourself. So, you might be focused on making plans to accomplish those goals. You might be so focused on your goals, you don’t stop planning and following those plans until the task is complete.

The downside of the Zeigarnik effect may be that when active, someone might never stop setting goals or tasks. Your mind may become “stuck,” always preoccupied with looking for the next accomplishment to tackle.

This can be visualized as a track runner jumping over hurdle after hurdle on an endless track, only to see nothing but more hurdles ahead.

Without rest, this may lead to burnout. Sometimes, unwanted thoughts about the incomplete tasks may lead to:

Despite the possibility of stress and burnout, there are benefits to the Zeigarnik effect. It’s equally possible to use it to your advantage.

Tackle procrastination

First, it may be possible to use the Zeigarnik effect to overcome procrastination.

To harness the Zeigarnik effect to bust tendencies to procrastinate, start with the following steps:

  1. Make a plan.
  2. Start with a small, easy first step.
  3. Do not try to complete the task right away.

The idea is that the unfinished task may be more likely to stay fresh in your brain until it’s complete. By taking a small step first, your mind can gradually encourage you to take more significant steps until the chore is done.

Study better

Many students might think it’s best to cram right before their exams, trying to absorb as much information as possible in a small amount of time. Some feel this will help them retain more facts and do well on the test.

However, the Zeigarnik effect says it may be better to break up your study time into smaller sessions over a longer period.

You may retain more information if you allow yourself breaks for your brain to focus on something else for a period. During those breaks, your mind may go over the material repeatedly until your exam is complete. This may create better recall ability at the time of the test.

Improve mental well-being

Even though the Zeigarnik effect can have adverse effects on your mental health, it can also have a positive effect, too.

For example, when you achieve your goals, you might feel a sense of accomplishment. This positive emotion can lead to other positive emotions, like improved self-esteem and greater confidence.

When an unpleasant chore is finally complete, you might feel like a massive weight has been lifted from your shoulders and a great sense of closure. This release of stress can improve your overall emotional health, leading to a calmer mind.

The Zeigarnik effect theory states that people may tend to remember incomplete or unfinished tasks better than those that are completed. This theory can have both a negative and positive impact on mental health.

The negative effects can cause stress and anxiety due to persistent goal setting and thoughts of incomplete projects needing completion. However, it can also leave you with a great sense of accomplishment and improved self-worth.

There are benefits to using the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage, and it’s possible to harness this theory for self-improvement.

Overall, the actual impact depends on your individual mental health. If you’re experiencing stress or symptoms of anxiety from the Zeigarnik effect, it may be helpful to talk with a mental health professional.

If you’re ready to get help managing your mental health, you can visit the Psych Central guide on seeking support.