Human beings have this funny little tendency that psychologists call the Zeigarnik effect. In short, the Zeigarnik effect describes how if you start a project and then do not finish it, your brain will automatically send you intrusive thoughts, almost like reminders, about your original goal. Its purpose is to help us stay on task and finish projects that we have begun. That is why it is so much easier to finish dreaded projects once you can just. get. started.
The problem is, even if you try to move on to another project, the Zeigarnik effect insures that your brain never gives up on task number one. Thoughts about goal number one will continue to pop into your head, stressing you out and distracting you from finishing your new goal. Even if you no longer want the reminders, they can be hard to get rid of.
I know that I experience the Zeigarnik effect quite often. I’ll be working on writing an article, but I can’t get my laundry, dinner plans, and the email I need to send to my brother, out of my mind. As I try to focus and get work done, I begin to feel more and more stressed.
“I won’t have time to do everything before my meeting at six!”
Such thoughts drift through the back of my consciousness, wasting away much needed brain power. Despite the fact that the tasks I am worrying about may be menial. (When I actually planned them out, I realized they would take about an hour. Yet I had worried that I wouldn’t have time to finish everything in an entire afternoon!)
The funny thing is that if I turn away from my project for just a few minutes, and create an action plan detailing how I will accomplish the bothersome tasks at the back of my brain, suddenly, I am freed! The worries and stress disappear and I can once again focus on my work.
Research has been amassing to back up my personal experience. It turns out that while unfulfilled goals do burden the mind, creating a plan to fulfill those goals is enough to satisfy the Zeigarnik effect and suspend cognitive reminders until they are resumed at a later time. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to stop everything and finish those pesky back-of-the-mind tasks to be freed from the Zeigarnik effect, all you have to do is plan when and how you are going to accomplish those tasks. Your brain thinks that is good enough.
Researchers Masicampo and Baumeister conducted studies in which they asked participants to work on a small task and then interrupted them before they could finish to have them work on another task. The participants performance on the second task decreased because they were distracted with thoughts about how to complete the initial task. However, when the researchers gave participants a chance to plan out how they would finish task one before moving on to task two, the distracting thoughts ceased and performance returned to the optimal level.
According to Masicampo and Baumeister:
Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended–allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease–and is resumed at the specified later time.
So, how do you beat the Zeigarnik effect and organize your day for maximum productivity and peace of mind? I would like to introduce you to a simple tool that when used effectively can become a productivity superpower.
Drum roll please
Lists can be a powerful way to help you plan how to accomplish tasks. If you struggle with pesky thoughts distracting you from your work, a simple to-do list could save you hours of time. By getting your plans out of your head and onto paper (or your electronic device), your brain can stop worrying about future projects and focus on whatever you are currently working on.
Not all to-do lists are created equal. For decades people have researched, experimented, and discovered different methods and practices for making their to-do lists as helpful as possible. Ultimately, I believe it comes down to finding whichever method make the most sense for your personality and lifestyle. Here is an article from greatist.com with some tips about writing great to-do lists.
To help get you started on your journey to discover your perfect list, I will be outlining a few of the basic strategies in my blog post next week.