The Zeigarnik effect is one of many psychological phenomena that accompany us daily and of which we are not fully aware. I think that to facilitate your understanding, it is best to explain it through an example.
Imagine that we work as waiters and that we have just served everything you have requested at a table. They ask us for the bill and we charge them immediately. In our head, we have automatically closed our commitment to that table. Moments later, new customers arrive at the store and ask for some soft drinks and something to snack on. We approached the bar and at that time, if we allowed ourselves a few seconds to think, we remember much better those orders that we have not yet served or charged, than those we have just dispatched.
In other words, this waiter better remember all unfinished or unfinished tasks (what you still have to do)However, it seems that he has suddenly forgotten everything he had served and collected moments before. We have archived that information in the “completed tasks” drawer and quickly forget them because they are no longer relevant to our immediate performance. In addition, we are beings with a limited processing system, so we need to save cognitive resources. For this, we must lose information that is no longer useful for us to accommodate another that may become so. It is a matter of space and efficiency.
The situation we have exposed is not a mere coincidence. In the original experiment, carried out in an Austrian café by Bluma Zeigárnik (1927), is where the conclusions that explain and give name to this phenomenon are obtained. Simplifying and summarizing the results, the author noted that a waiter was able to easily remember a list of pending orders, and yet he had great difficulty remembering the dishes he had just served and the services I had already charged.
The Zeigarnik effect in everyday life
We have stated that all those tasks that we have not finished are better remembered than those completed. An unfinished task generates a tension or goal impulse that leads us to keep it fresh in our head to have greater ease in remembering it and therefore, in carrying it out. This resource, which it seems we cannot access consciously, can be used in our favor when we have to prioritize among many tasks and do not have enough time to perform them.
Therefore, from the experiment we extract that it is better to start a task and leave it “halfway”, than not to start it. It is the very sensation of having an incomplete or unfinished task that will lead us to try to alleviate, through action, the anxiety that this generates. Therefore, we will only reduce this tension by ending what we have already begun.
Why is it so difficult for us to leave half the mission of a video game? Why don't we usually stop reading a book in the middle of a chapter? What happens when at the end of a movie we see the word: <>?
Usually, the human being gets along badly with uncertainty, with everything we do not control. We don't like to leave something halfway in any context. When we start something, we have a greater or lesser impulse that directs us to finish that in which we are embarked. Any activity that generates a permanent feeling of interruption is etched in our head, and we will do our best to complete it. What we have already finished, however, we forget it hopelessly fast.
That feeling we have when we finish the second season of our favorite series and we know that there are still a few months left for the third to be released. This desire to issue the next chapter as soon as possible to solve our doubts about the plot, that is the Zeigarnik effect.
Practical recommendation for procrastinators: to avoid the postponement of important tasks, something as simple as starting them is more effective / productive, even if we cannot complete them, than to postpone them.