Zeignarik Effect

In the 1920s, Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed a waiter taking orders at a restaurant. When prompted, the waiter could easily recall items from unpaid orders but couldn’t recite a single item after the patrons had paid their bills. Zeigarnik published her seminal work, hereafter referred to by her namesake. The Zeigarnik Effect states that an incomplete task creates a cognitive tension that makes task-specific memory more accessible. Once completed, the tension releases and the memory disappears in the sands of time. Although further research has failed to corroborate this phenomenon, the Zeigarnik Effect still influences many aspects of modern society—such as onboarding users to software products by stating things like “Your profile is 60% complete” or showing a checklist of half-completed items.

People have a natural desire for completion, so incomplete tasks continue to nag us. While useful in some contexts, this tendency could foster anxiety—ruminating on open loops, distracting our minds with unfinished tasks we fear forgetting.

The remedy: If you worry about something, write it down in a trusted system. For instance, I use Apple Notes to offload any task or concern that worms its way into my head. Then I schedule a time to empty this repository—which frees my mind for other things.