What is the Zeigarnik Effect?
Have you ever been so busy – juggling multiple tasks and trying to remember minutia – that you felt stymied, completely paralyzed by overwhelm? Your subconscious mind was telling you that it was running out of brainpower.
The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon that involves the tendency to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. It was first observed by Bluma Zeigarnik, a Soviet psychologist, in the early 20th century.
- Unfinished Tasks: The Zeigarnik Effect suggests that people have a better memory for tasks or activities that are interrupted or left incomplete compared to those that are finished.
- Intrusive Thoughts: Unfinished tasks create a state of mental tension, leading to intrusive thoughts about the task until it is completed. Once a task is completed, it is less likely to occupy one’s thoughts.
- Task Prioritization: The Zeigarnik Effect has implications for task prioritization and time management. Unfinished tasks may continue to capture attention, influencing individuals to prioritize completing them.
When we finish a task, we get
closure and stop thinking about it.
When we don’t finish tasks, we keep
thinking about them.
We yearn for completion.
Defined by Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist who in the 1920s conducted a study on memory, in which she compared memory in relation to incomplete and complete tasks.
How to use the Zeigarnik Effect
Our brains want to run efficiently and close any open loops, such as:
- questions left unanswered
- problems without resolution
- goals sadly not achieved
In her study, Bluma Zeigarnik found a strong correlation between the memory of an incomplete task and the desire to close the loop. She declared that if we have tasks that are incomplete, we consume brainpower by holding onto the memory; our subconscious continues to remind (or nag) our conscious mind.
Our brains remember more details about unfinished work:
- Open loops = need high amount of recall
- Closed loops = require little or no recall
A few open loops might be good for our productivity; they remind us to bring these tasks to completion.
Beware: if there are too many open loops, you may suffer what’s called cognitive overload: that feeling of stress that comes when a significant amount of mental resources are tied up – kind of like when your computer’s memory is maxing out and everything grinds to a halt.
More open loops, less willpower. Therefore: LOWER YOUR W.I.P.
Interestingly, it’s the lack of a plan that drains willpower. So,
- Make HABITS to automate
- Write down the tasks – keep track – delegate to a system
- Planning will ease the pressure… just remember to avoid the looooong backlogs
Using Zeigarnik Effect in Agile Coaching:
- Backlog Management:
- In Agile software development, leverage the Zeigarnik Effect when managing backlogs. Unfinished user stories or tasks may naturally attract attention and motivate team members to prioritize their completion.
- Sprint Planning:
- During sprint planning, consider the Zeigarnik Effect when discussing and planning tasks for the upcoming sprint. Unfinished work from previous sprints may naturally become a focus for the team.
- Visual Boards:
- Use visual boards, such as Kanban boards, to represent the status of tasks. Uncompleted tasks can be visually prominent, serving as a reminder to the team of work that needs attention.
- Regular Retrospectives:
- During retrospectives, discuss and address any recurring unfinished tasks. Understand the reasons behind delays and collaboratively find solutions to improve task completion rates.
Understanding the Zeigarnik Effect can help Agile coaches and teams make informed decisions about task prioritization and workflow management. By recognizing the impact of unfinished tasks on attention and memory, teams can optimize their processes for greater efficiency and completion.
Resources on Zeigarnik Effect:
- Original Research:
- Access the original research by Bluma Zeigarnik, titled “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks,” published in 1927, to gain insights into the foundational observations.
- Psychological Literature:
- Explore psychology literature and journals for articles and studies that discuss the Zeigarnik Effect and its implications in various contexts.
- Books on Memory and Cognition:
- Books that cover topics related to memory and cognition often include discussions on the Zeigarnik Effect. Look for resources that provide practical applications of this psychological phenomenon.
- Educational Websites:
- Educational websites, particularly those focusing on psychology or behavioral science, may offer articles and resources explaining the Zeigarnik Effect.
Visit the Agile Coach’s Toolkit for more definitions, models, theorems and stuff.