The Zeigarnik Effect, Ways to Improve Motivation and Memory

Discover the Zeigarnik Effect: how incomplete tasks drive motivation. Learn tricks to boost memory and productivity.

We investigate an observation made by Bluma Zeigarnik after she carefully watched how Viennese waiters were incredibly adept at remembering orders but how they quickly they forgot them once the patron had left the coffee shop. Her colleague, Maria Ovsiankina further noted that incomplete actions create a gentle motivation that spurs a person to get the job done. The conclusions these women published help us explain why we feel the way we do, sometimes motivated and enthusiastic and at other times, gloomy, worried and anxious over apparently nothing. Their astute theories give us opportunity to create some ingenious tricks to help improve memory, productivity and aid us in get things done quicker.


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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Today, we are talking about an observation made by Bluma Zeigarnik after she carefully watched how Viennese waiters were incredibly adept at remembering orders but how they quickly they forgot them once the patron had left the coffee shop. Her colleague, Maria Ovsiankina further noted that incomplete actions create a gentle motivation that spurs a person to get the job done. The conclusions these women published help us explain why we feel the way we do, sometimes motivated and enthusiastic and at other times, gloomy, worried and anxious over apparently nothing. Their astute theories give us opportunity to create some ingenious tricks to help improve memory, productivity and aid us in get things done quicker. Stay right here with me while we take care of some business because, after that, I'm going to share some of these tools with you as they will help you to improve your efficiency and rid you of unwanted thoughts that haunt and bother you.

I am 64 years old and blessed with exceptionally good health. I have a bright, positive and enthusiastic outlook on life. So, it worried me a little when I started to lose some of my edge and found myself procrastinating quite a lot. It also manifested for a while as night terrors which caused me to mumble and moan in my sleep and to sweat profusely. I thankfully know that it is not a physical thing because I was recently examined and given a clean bill of health. It had to be psychological. There had to be something preoccupying my mind that caused these crazy things to happen to me. I needed to ferret it out and understand it if I was to get beyond it.

I have many irons in the fire and I remembered a lecture I recently gave to a group of enthusiastic hypnotherapists from the Hypnosis Guild. It focussed on the research work of a couple of women in the 1920s who noticed something quite intriguing. In my words, they discovered that the human mind has a repository of unresolved issues and that there is a process that randomly brings these issues to mind. It affects our mood which can flip either way depending upon the nature of the issue that needs resolution, either making us anxious or motivating us.

The woman was a young Russian in her twenties who happened to be in a coffee shop in Vienna, Austria. She had her eye on the waiters. We don't know if she was eyeing them out because she fancied them — I might have — or whether she was studying them because she was a young research scientist learning psychology. She watched the waiters hustling and bustling about, serving all the clients. She was intrigued by the way the waiters processed customer orders. I was last in Vienna sometime in the mid-80s and I was also fascinated by these waiters. Well, not by the same waiters, they were long dead, but by way the waiters in the Viennese restaurants took and processed orders. Having placed an order with a waiter, let's say, for a cup of coffee with some pouring cream and a pastry to accompany it, I noticed that none of them wrote anything down on a slip of paper yet every order was always perfectly delivered. This of itself, was not exceptionally Viennese because I've seen skilled waiters do the same elsewhere in the world too. What set the Viennese ones apart was the way they concluded the transaction. When a patron called for the bill, the waiter would come up to the table and ask what he or she had consumed. Based on what was agreed between them, a bill was written up and settled. I occasionally tested the system out, to see if the custom was solely based on honesty, conscience and the memory of the patron — if these were Joburg restaurants, the business would have been defrauded and declared bankrupt in no time at all. So, I tested the system out in the Viennese restaurants during my stay there by failing to declare one or two of the items I had had. The waiters were always very tactful and prodded my memory by suggesting that I also consumed the items I had not disclosed. "Oh, yeah, I forgot, thanks for reminding me." I had never seen it done like this before and it fascinated me. In most places, orders are written down, sometimes rather fastidiously to make sure the customer can't repudiate having ordered something, and then the details are captured into the cash register. At the end of the stay, the customer is presented with an itemised printout and a total of what is owed. But in Vienna, it was very different. Nobody entered the items into any cash register. Waiters simply held the order in their heads and when it came time for the customer to pay, the waiter politely and discretely got their customers to pay. It was amazing to see how much information a waiter could hold onto at peak times in the restaurant. To Bluma Zeigarnik, the procedure might not have been quite as novel as it was for me. She however was a research psychologist and was fascinated by the way the waiters remembered so much detail. She observed them and conducted further research into the way the waiters committed orders to memory yet, as soon as the bill was settled, the waiter then completely forgot the details of the order and had no recollection of having served the client. She was spellbound by this phenomenon and made it the focal point of her thesis which she submitted in 1921. Essentially, she found that a person is more likely to remember an interrupted task and not so likely to remember one that had already been completed. This is now known in psychology as the Zeigarnik Effect. Bluma Zeigarnik's colleague, a woman by the name of Maria Ovsiankina, added further research by observing that an interrupted task has the effect of creating a tendency to motivate the resumption of the task at the first opportunity. I'm sure this is common sense to psychologists but I spent a lifetime in computer science and I needed to get a more simplified model of these effects to appreciate how they drive our lives and how we could possibly use them to our advantage.

I imagined that there is a process somewhere in our brains that has a database and keeps track of everything that was interrupted and which remains incomplete. It is what I call, one's stack of unresolved issues. I'm sure it has happened to you when you are busy going about your business and out of the blue a random thought pops into your head. How it got there is a mystery but it could be a thought as simple as, "Oh, I must remember buy bread on the way home." Some of the thoughts aren't quite as innocuous. It's like a jukebox filled with CDs with some imaginary finger randomly pressing a button and playing a track. I have randomly found myself thinking of some issue regarding my sexuality, the Jehovah's Witnesses bigoted views of homosexuality and the way that had undermined me as a youth. I'm left somewhat bewildered by it, "Where on earth did that come from?" It rushed in from nowhere and bowled me over sideways. People have random thoughts all day long and many of them take us right out of our state of flow. They hijack our train of thought and cause us to lose focus, even if it is just for a few seconds. We seem not to have choice over them, nor can we control when and in which order they arrive. We seem to be completely at the mercy of this process that runs deep inside our brains.

You will notice that this subconscious process does not action anything; it simply alerts you. Just because the random thought, "oh, I must buy bread on the way home" comes rushing across your brain, it doesn't spur you to make an instant U-turn and head off to the nearest supermarket to buy bread. Instead, you just carry on doing what you're doing and the thought soon floats out of your consciousness. Random thoughts come and random thoughts go. Notifications like the need to buy bread are annoying and we wish we could swat them away, like we do with flies. But there are other unresolved issues buried so deeply in one subconscious mind that, upon their arrival in our conscious awareness, they don't merely irritate us — they haunt us. My traumatic experience growing up as a young gay man under the tyrannical dogma of the Jehovah's Witnesses is just such an example and it was this that accounted for my night terrors, sweating bouts and general gloominess of late. These issues can never be resolved and they lie around in the stack of unresolved issues, waiting to haunt me time and again. My nocturnal reaction is one of fight and flight — hence the frightened moaning and sweats. I mumble and moan as I try to defend my beliefs, adrenalin pumping, causing me to sweat in panic. I was excommunicated at the age of 27 because of my sexual orientation and symbolically lost my entire family on that day when the religion no longer allowed them to associate with me. I have done a lot of soul-searching since then and I learned to replace thoughts of hatred with ones of compassion. Well, that's what I believed. But with the recent resurgence of night-time disturbances, I was finally able to connect the dots and realised that what I have been experiencing in recent weeks is actually a consequence of the Zeigarnik Effect.

Let me tell you a little more about the Zeigarnik Effect and how it plays around with us.

I have mentioned Patrick Purdy in a previous episode but the story has relevance here too. In the late 1980s Patrick Purdy, armed to the hilt, walked onto a school playground in America and shot dead eight children wounding and traumatising many more. He then turned a gun on himself and committed suicide. To everyone's horror, some of the children started to play a rather macabre game. It was like cops and robbers but this time it had a sinister twist, the children played it out on the playground on the very spot where the other children died. Parents were naturally very worried about the children's morbid needs to play this game, as were the teachers, but it was only after psychologists studied these children that they realised that playing the Purdy game was an important aspect in trying to reframe the incident in the children's minds. Sometimes, when traumatic things happen to us, we often need to tell others about our experience. Occasionally we might even embroider the story a little for heightened effect and sympathy. But why do we need to tell our tragic stories to others? What benefit do we get from repeating them? Psychologists argue that we do this to formulate new survival strategies. We play out many different scenarios in our heads until we come to a plausible way to contextualise our role in, and behaviour during the event. Once or twice when I popped into a retail outlet for some groceries, a surly, disinterested and rude cashier served me, flinging my stuff backwards after she scanned each item for a packer to stack it in the shopping bag. I bit my tongue and said nothing as I paid for my goods but as I walked back to the car, dozens of fantasised strategies leaped through my head, each presenting another wild way I could have dealt with the insolent woman. We call this kind of strategizing, "What ifs…" Many therapists tell you that "what ifs" aren't at all helpful because they keep you trapped in the experience. This is only partially true. Psychologists were right about the children's need to play the Purdy game to find coping strategies that they could use should the situation ever occur again. What trapped the children in the game was that it had no other ending than the one that happened that fatal day. The incident had entered the children's stack of unresolved issues and stuck there. The psychologists knew the children needed to find closure and they tweaked the game a bit, giving the kids some new winning strategies. It would be important to empower the children to bring closure to the matter, thereby removing the incident from their stack of unresolved issues. I don't precisely know what advice was given but I suppose they taught the children alternative well-formed endings to the game, like lying flat on the ground, calling for adult help, and so on. Without a well-formed outcome, there'd be no closure, and the incident would stay stuck in the stack of unresolved issues and would resurface randomly for ever more. This is precisely what happens to soldiers who suffer from the debilitating effects called PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When I was recently in Harare, Zimbabwe, I worked with a man who was a high-ranking soldier in Afghanistan. He'd been suffering from PTSD for ages and was beside himself. Huge comfort and relief came about when he found some spiritually well-formed outcome to his horrendous war experience. This is also what had happened to me in a far more indiscernible way. I thought I had dealt with my past but I now know that some elements are stuck in my stack of unresolved issues and they will come back and haunt me periodically until I find closure. I am now in a process of trying to understand these issues. I don't quite get it yet but I'm sure I will. The moment I have an alternative well-formed outcome, that'll be the moment when the loop closes and the item drops from my stack of unresolved issues. Only then can I forget it and move on, like the Viennese waiters who had successfully processed and dispatched a happy patron. The Zeigarnik Effect is the thing that underpins an insomniac's inability to fall asleep at night. They often lie awake, having no control over the alerts that randomly emerge from the stack of unresolved issues, preventing the person's mind from resting.

If you need a tool to dig into your subconscious to resolve an issue, I share this useful exercise that has worked well for me over many decades. It is known as automatic writing which is a form of Ideomotor responses — these are thoughts and ideas that reflect in the movement of the body. I take an executive notepad, a clipboard and a pen and find a nice comfortable place to sit. With clipboard at the ready, usually lying on my lap in landscape and the clip on the opposite side to my dominant hand, I take a deep breath, allow my eyes to close and slowly sink into a deep meditative state — in fact, what I use is a little self-hypnosis. Self-hypnosis takes my conscious mind offline, leaving me with direct access to my subconscious. In trance and with my eyes closed, I feel my way around the outer edge of the executive notepad, discovering and mapping the space in my mind as if I were blind. Then, as ideas start popping into my mind, I jot them down. I try to capture every idea and every nuance. In the beginning, these ideas arrive as single words describing simple things, like objects, colours, names, places, and so on. They don't generally have any interrelationship, one with another. As these ideas start to flow, I increase my speed of writing and soon find myself capturing my thoughts at a very fast pace. The faster, the better. After a while the random words fade away and my mind presents a storyline of sorts. My hand is only a scribe, recording everything that I am aware of. I avoid writing complete, grammatically correct sentences as this would engage the wrong part of my brain. I therefore write only two or three words, capturing the essence of what I'm thinking. I separate these little parcels of ideas with a horizontal or vertical stroke. I scribble very fast to keep pace with my mind. As quickly as the automatic writing kicks into action, so too does end.

The next part of the exercise needs my conscious mind to make sense of what I have written. Out of trance, I now go through a referencing and editing phase. The language of the subconscious mind is "creative imagery" and I'm often amused by the fancifulness of the stories I write. But each small group of words, the ones separated by a vertical or horizontal stroke, needs to be carefully decoded to make proper sense of the subconscious communique. Every object, colour, sound, element and sequence of events in the story has significance. The subconscious mind did not arrive at the words randomly. They emanated from some deep recess in the mind. For example, let's say that I wrote down "white lily". What the term "white lily" means to you is going to be very different to what it means to me. You already have a context for the phrase "white lily". It happened the moment I first mentioned it. To me, "white lily" could have special significance in that it symbolises a special part of my garden. But to you, "white lily" could have reference to a wreath of flowers on somebody's grave. This second parse over my automatic, subconscious writing is vital to find, isolate and interpret each bit of symbolism. Having replaced phrases like "white lily" with "a special place in my garden", I rewrite the whole story. It may even take a second or third editorial parse before I have an idea of what my subconscious communicated. I usually edit this down to a paragraph, summarising and distilling the essence of the message. Through the years, this has been one of my most valuable soul-searching tools. It certainly isn't complicated but it requires a tiny bit of practice to consistently get good results. Automatic writing is one of the processes I am using to understand what is stuck in my stack of unresolved issues.

So, I've shown you how we have a stack of unresolved issues somewhere in our brains and that there is a randomised process that draws one of the many interrupted issues out of the hat to bring it to our attention. Some unresolved issues come back to haunt us; others are quite useful — like remembering to stock up with bread. The attention-grabbing trigger offers us no help to muster support for action but, according to Ovsiankina's research, it does leave a residue of stress that's very useful: it creates a continuous tension in the mind. This tension holds the item in memory and nudges us to do something about it. While it is important for me to eliminate old ideas from my stack of unresolved issues to create an open spaciousness for living, there are times when I purposefully add entries to the stack. Now that really sounds bizarre. Why spend most of my time closing unresolved issues, to then go and intentionally add new ones. You see, our minds like closure and will only come to rest once that happens. I'm sure you've watched your favourite series on TV when suddenly at the cliff hanger, the episode ends with the caption, "to be continued…" You're left frustrated wishing you could close the loop by immediately watching the next episode. Charles Dickens was a master at cliff-hangers, playing right into our brain's need to close the loop. He wrote his novels as a series of stories, leaving his readers dangling at the end of each one, anxious to read his next story.

Let's see how we can put all this to work. Research shows that students and workers that interrupt a chunk of work without completing it and then do some unrelated task, do far better than those that first complete the chunk of work. I spent many years in IT, programming computers. I found that I slept better if I stopped working when I reached a logical cutoff point in my work. I hadn't left unresolved issues open in my mind and so I rested far better. But this is not quite what the experts are saying, are they? There were times when I couldn't finish at a perfect cutoff point. Most of my work back then was iterative design through prototyping and there were times when I was mentally exhausted but the design just did not want to take shape. The Zeigarnik Effect spurred me on, "Just one more go at it and I will then call it a night." If I was just too tired to continue and left the thing in a state of incompletion, I noticed that I had much more enthusiasm to get up the next day. I'd spring out of bed, pumped with motivation to finish the job. This explains why students and workers who leave a chunk of work in an incomplete state and interrupt it with a completely different task, do far better than those who simply plod on and finish it. So, my advice to you is this, "Never do today, what you can possibly put off until tomorrow." It seems to be the exact opposite of the usual advice to, "Never put off until tomorrow, what you can do today." The latter rendition is a common motivator for productivity that plays into the idea that, "the Devil makes work for idle hands." In a world obsessed by productive work, advice to quit before you have finished, seems so counter-intuitive. However, finishing it off the next day gives you a sense of accomplishment and kicks the day off to a good start. The best advice is to pause long projects at places where you would really like to be continuing with it. There's also a nice spinoff to the Zeigarnik Effect in that the subconscious mind often continues to process and sort things out when the project is left in a state of incompletion. Have you had the experience of going to bed with an unresolved problem on your mind, only to find that you miraculously wake up the next morning having solved the problem in your sleep?

Clever social media posts make good use of the Zeigarnik Effect. They're known as listicles, a style of blogging that starts by offering a list of reader benefits, like: the top 10 ways to improve your sex life. When you see a listicle like this, you're hooked and have to satisfy your curiosity and read on. Another cool way to utilise this effect is to use teasers in your communication with others, like opening your business presentation this way, "After telling you about our company financial year-end figures, I'll share some top executive secrets to doubling your earnings." Who wouldn't sit through the dull parts of your presentation, waiting for these personal gems? If you are a teacher or lecturer, then pose a question to your students at the end of your lesson and you can be fairly sure that they would have subconsciously thought about it all night.

Hypnotherapists have a particular style of speaking, called hypnospeak. When they use this style of talking to you, it puts you into a hypnotic trance. How do they do it? I'll share one of Milton Erikson's techniques with you in a few seconds but first, let me tell you a bit about the man himself. Before Erikson, hypnotists used an abrupt, authoritative, matter-of-fact way of inducing trance. But Erikson observed that one could communicate far better without having to say too much and by tweaking one's style of speaking a little. He revolutionised hypnosis and invented many hypnospeak techniques that are still in use today. One of the linguistic tricks Erikson used was a technique that we call "layering". Whenever we overcomplicate a story by adding too many layers to it, we clog up our listener's mind and momentarily overload their stack of unresolved issues. The result is that a person temporarily enters into a heightened state of suggestibility. When our critical faculty is bypassed, we are far more likely to act upon suggestions. Here's Erikson's example of a clever semantic trick to induce hypnotic trance. Don't worry, I've adjusted it a little so that you will stay wide awake and fully alert while you listen to it. It works because Erikson overloaded the subject's stack of unresolved issues, bypassing the critical faculty and taking the conscious mind offline for a second or two, just enough time for Erikson to plant his suggestion. This is what he'd say, "I was speaking with a friend the other day who told me of a conversation she had had with a therapist who told her about a client that couldn't — go into trance now." You might be bewildered by what Erikson said, and that's the whole point of this hypnotic masterpiece. The story is just too complex to make sense of it and while your conscious mind is trying to unravel what Erikson said, your critical faculty came off guard for just a second, long enough for Erikson to sneak in his suggestive command, "Go into trance now." You might not have even heard the command but it was there all right. It's an interesting application of the Zeigarnik Effect.

So, let's wind this up for you in a practical way: We know that our brains don't like incomplete or unresolved issues and they drive us to close the loop. While a topic is in an open state, memory is created and a process randomly reminds us to complete it. These unresolved issues cause low-key stress which is both useful and detrimental. If the unresolved issue is debilitating, stress leads us into full-blown anxiety and panic; if the unresolved thing is exciting and uplifting, it creates positive stress and motivates us to finish. To use this quirk of mind to your best advantage, you should note and jot down the following aspects of any long-term project of yours:

  1. What aspect of it most annoys, distracts or interests you?
  2. List the next action you need to take to get the task done.
  3. Record your definition of what "finishing" the project really means to you. What criteria need to be met for you to know when the task is "done"?

Every time you step away from your project, always do so at one of the cutoff points where the project annoys, distracts or interests you the most. Notice how you feel while you are away from the project. You'll probably find yourself obsessing over it a little. Then, when you return to your project, be aware of your increased motivation to finish the next step. Again, notice how you are feeling once you finish off that part of your project. You'll probably have a good sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

I'm a perfectionist by nature and I can get a little OCD when it comes to finishing things off. My research for these shows is a good case in point. I can obsess over polishing tiny aspects of the show, which means that the idea never really reaches completion — the Zeigarnik Effect can be a perfectionist's nemesis. It adds days to my production cycle and causes untold stress in meeting the show's production deadline. By having a well-defined set of criteria that closes the production cycle, I can walk away from it and my mind rests. When the item is resolved, peacefulness prevails.

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