Zeigarnik effect

Phenomena where interrupted or incomplete tasks are remembered better than completed ones. Each task started creates tension.[1] This tension can manifest as involuntary thoughts about the task.

This is a double edged sword. The involuntary thoughts can initially create a strong desire to complete the task, likely increasing productivity from the increased attention. But, if the task remains incomplete for a long time, the constant thoughts induce stress over time, which can lead to burnout and procrastination if the stress is too great. If you’ve found yourself in bed at 2 am with your brain screaming at you about that thing you didn’t do, that’s a Zeigarnik moment.

The Zeigarnik effect can subject us to the “Tyranny of the Shoulds”, in which we compare who we are (the real self) with who we feel we should be (the ideal self). If we leave tasks unfinished for too long, the resultant rumination or anxiety can impact our self-esteem.

Psychologists Oliver Weigelt and Christine Syrek discovered that leaving assignments unfinished over the weekend causes people to ruminate on the unfinished tasks, which leads to difficulty switching off from work.

All together, the Zeigarnik effect combined with long and difficult tasks forms a negative feedback loop, while combined with shorter tasks forms a positive feedback loop.

How to make the most of the Zeigarnik effect

Tasks should not be assigned or delegated until they:


Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik reported in 1927.

  1. On finished and unfinished tasks.
    Bluma Zeigarnik ‧ 1927 ↩︎