Learn Better with the Zeigarnik Effect

Written on 01 April 2021.


If, like us, you are constantly on the lookout for techniques to make learning new information or mastering new skills easier, the Zeigarnik effect may interest you. 

Named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a psychologist of Lithuanian descent, the Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to remember unfinished tasks more easily than those we have completed. This approach may seem counter-intuitive, but it is a great way to learn more about how our psycho-cognitive cogs turn.

So, how can you take advantage of this information to boost your productivity and increase your learning abilities? We have decided to tackle the subject in this article and explore the applications of the Zeigarnik effect.

What Is The Zeigarnik Effect? 

It all started in the 1920s.

While sitting with friends in a restaurant, Dr. Zeigarnik noticed that waiters were able to memorise extremely long and complex orders before recalling them in the kitchen. Nevertheless, they completely forgot the items when the order had been finalised. Intrigued, Zeigarnik decided to investigate and looked into the subject.

As she further studied this psychological tendency, she discovered that the human brain is more able to memorise tasks in progress rather than tasks it has already completed. These were the foundations for discovering and formalising the Zeigarnik effect.

The human brain is more able to memorise tasks in progress rather than tasks it has already completed.

Why does our brain react in this way?

The reason is simpler than it seems. In fact, when we start a new task, our brain will develop a tension specific to it. This tension improves cognitive access to new information and data relevant to the task. It is therefore thanks to this tension that we can learn information more quickly and complete the task at hand more easily.

However, as soon as the task is finished or the new information has been learnt, the tension relaxes. The Zeigarnik effect is therefore particularly interesting in terms of learning and productivity. When we are working on something interesting and suddenly have to stop, this tension prevents us from fully focusing on something else. We just cannot move on to a new topic until we have completed the idea or task initiated in the first place

The anxiety of not achieving what one has initiated

The 8 consequences of the Zeigarnik effect:

1 ) You know at every moment what you have started and where you are at
2 ) When someone asks you for a list of what you’ve finished, you’ve already forgotten everything.
3 ) The more tasks you start but do not finish, the more stress you feel.
4 ) Tension decreases when you finish a job.
5 ) The brain doesn’t like ambiguity
6 ) You will remember something better if you do it several times.
7 ) You can reduce the Zeigarnik effect by performing a task similar to the unfinished task
8 ) If you have something difficult to do, start with the easy part.

The Zeigarnik Effect, Productivity and Learning

Avoid a substantial mental strain

Since a task or topic abandoned along the way induces intrusive thoughts which prevent the brain from concentrating, the key to learning is fully dedicating a certain period of time to each activity.

When we have completely learnt new information or mastered a new skill, our cognitive system gives us a reward: peace of mind! Conversely, an activity left hanging will result in anxiety and the inability to focus on anything else.

Ban the multitasking

By now, you will have understood that multitasking is the sworn enemy of the Zeigarnik effect. Each new task is actually an interruption of the previous, which explains why we cannot really do everything at the same time, because each new activity leads to additional tension and increased mental load on the brain, which is not equipped to respond to such complexity!

Selecting a strategy

This is also why time management techniques, like Pomodoro, work so well. The key is therefore to break down each new area of knowledge (or each new task) into several sub-parts to make them easier to learn and to adapt the amount of time we dedicate to each according to their level of difficulty.

This approach has been widely adopted in the field of consulting in particular. The approach of consultants is, in fact, to divide a complex problem into bricks of lower complexity, translated into deliverables. This real-life Lego game of breaking down the complexity of a task helps them to move forward in an efficient and targeted manner!

How can the Zeigarnik effect help us to learn better?

Let’s look at the different strategies to take advantage of the Zeigarnik effect and use this tension specific to a task under way to keep focused and learn more easily.

1/ Create Momentum

Be it at school or work, we are very prone to procrastination. New communication tools tend to make us more open to distraction. We are therefore often tempted to give up one task and jump to another (which seems more urgent). This can lead to stress and a lot of mistakes.

The Zeigarnik effect shows us that we actually have everything to gain by starting a new task as soon as possible, especially if it is complex. Just getting down to it will have a very powerful impact on your motivation.

When you have created this opening for the topic in question, you will find that it will keep popping up in your mind, which will make you come back to it again and again until you have fully learnt it.

2/ Plan Strategic Breaks to Improve Your Memory

Taking short breaks while working on a task helps maintain the tension specific to this new area of learning. It can help boost your memory and make it easier to access relevant information.

Studies show that students who temporarily stop studying to do other activities (like playing video games or doing sport) will remember what they have just learnt more easily than those who cram continuously.

To maintain your momentum, it is therefore advisable to plan short breaks throughout the day. Just be sure to do something completely unrelated to the task at hand.

3/ Conclude Your Day with a To Do List

In practice, it will not always be possible to apply the Zeigarnik effect to your working day. Not only will you not necessarily be able to dedicate yourself to a single topic, but it can also fuel your desire to devote yourself to other tasks and lead to anxiety or burnout.

To contain the negative potential of the Zeigarnik effect, try writing down a list of tasks that you haven’t yet completed at the end of the day. A study from Florida State University has shown that people who think about how they are going to complete a task are less distracted by their unfinished work.

Just recognising that you still have a task in progress and writing down when you think you will finish it will reduce your level of stress and help you relax. When you go back to it, you will be calmer and more able to concentrate

4/ Explore New Topics to Work On Neuroplasticity

What Is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is a concept that greatly shook the field of neuroscience when it was discovered. It refers to the brain’s ability to constantly reorganise the connections between its neurons. In fact, an individuals brain will change according to their experiences throughout their life.

Neuroplasticity was demonstrated in an experiment conducted in the 1990s with a group of monkeys. They had to touch objects with certain fingers, and each finger was numbered from one to five. Touching with one finger activated a very specific part of the somatosensory cortex (the area of the brain responsible for perceiving touch). In other words, one part of the cortex was activated when a monkey touched an object with finger number one, whereas a different part woke up when finger number five was used.

The study showed that if the monkeys were asked to use only a limited number of their five fingers to touch things, the size of the areas of their cortex was reorganised accordingly after a few months. This meant that the areas linked to the fingers not asked to touch were reduced, whereas those responsible for perceiving the sensation of touch of the fingers used grew larger each day. The conclusion we can draw from this observation is that our brain adapts to repetitive tasks to make us more efficient and increase our perception.

Neuroplasticity and Learning

It has also been demonstrated that neuroplasticity plays a part in the process of learning. In fact, learning, which consists of tackling a new and unknown task, requires the reorganisation of certain neural networks in the brain to help the individual to adapt to the new task at hand or new knowledge discovered.

Neuroplasticity is still relatively unknown today (or at least, its mechanisms are still difficult to understand), but it is clear that the better it is in an individual, the more efficient learning will be and the more the brain will be able to heal certain wounds. This is a great challenge to boost your ability to tackle new tasks efficiently!

Learning new skills and knowledge is easier when you know how your brain works. Using the Zeigarnik effect will help you to concentrate more easily and better retain relevant facts and information.

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