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  • Cameron M. Clark

The Zeigarnik Effect

The best memory strategy of them all is to not rely on your memory in the first place. If you want to be absolutely certain of remembering something, just write it down, which then effectively lets your memory off the hook. Simple, right?

Too simple, as it turns out. As some of us have discovered the hard way, sometimes writing things down (like tasks to be completed) has the opposite effect of what we intended. Sometimes writing things down lulls our brain into thinking we are done with the information that we wrote down, making it even harder to remember than if we had not 'dumped' our memory onto the page.

The tendency to remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones is what has become known as the Zeigarnik effect - and it can be a cautionary tale of how memory can fall off the rails, or a critical insight into a useful memory strategy if approached thoughtfully.

The classic example of the Zeigarnik effect is how restaurant wait staff are able to track, remember, and update complex food orders - though only until the order is closed and the food is paid for, after which many of the order details seemingly evaporate from their minds. The insight here is that our minds appear to place a memory premium on information that is part of an incomplete or ongoing operation.

Knowing this, how can we use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage?

First, avoid the pitfall of dumping your to-do lists onto a page, and then letting yourself think you are done with those tasks. Become aware of what it feels like to consider a task (or a set of tasks) complete, and the consequences it has on your memory for the relevant details. You might also try writing your to-do list in two sittings. By taking a break between starting and finishing your list, you are forcing your mind to keep the list items 'active' while you focus on something else. Or, if you're feeling really adventurous, you can try leaving one or more of the most memorable tasks off your written to-do list, which may keep your mind from considering the list of tasks completed or adequately dealt with.

Second, the Zeigarnik effect can be used to great effect in helping us achieve our goals - so long as we are willing to start a task. In starting a project, we are creating a kind of tension in our minds that heightens our cognitive access to (i.e. memory for) task-relevant information. This may be particularly helpful if you are prone to procrastination, or just dragging your feet on a task or project you know you should be doing. Start these tasks early, or in any way you can. The 'cognitive tension' associated with the Zeigarnik effect will then have the effect of pulling you back to the task until it is completed.

This aligns well with author and habit expert James Clear's advice about getting started: "Whenever you are stuck searching for the optimal plan, remember: Getting started changes everything."

This week's sharp thinking question is:

What should you have already gotten started on?


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