Make the Zeigarnik-Effect Work for You

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian psychologist. One day, she was having work lunch with some of her colleagues in a restaurant.

On their way back to work, they discussed how the waiters where able to recall all orders when the customers wanted to pay - they remembered what each person had without any records, even though the place was quite busy.

Photograph of Bluma Zeigarnik

Intrigued by the discussion, she headed back to the restaurant to inquire which methods of memorizing the orders the waiters used, just to find out that the waiter serving her group had no recall of her order, of her, or any of her colleagues. He completely forgot about them as soon as they paid and left.

Or so the story goes.

Bluma Zeigarnik was fascinated - and started a research journey into how recall works, and what role the status of a task play in it. What she found is now called the "Zeigarnik effect". In short, the Zeigarnik effect is the ability to recall unfinished tasks more easily than finished ones.

In the example above, the waiters could recall all orders placed by patrons as long as the orders were not paid for. From the waiters' perspective, the task of serving them was unfinished. Payment was the finishing step of their tasks, and once it was completed, everything was immediately forgotten.

The Zeigarnik effect and your poor, old brain

One of the paradoxons of todays office (knowledge) workers is that we're supposed to do something our brain is extremely bad at: Holding information in memory. Our brain is very good at creating new information, but also built for discarding it as soon as it is not important anymore.

The Zeigarnik effect is a powerful device, but it comes at a price: While a task is not finished, simply remembering its unfinishedness will take up a significant amount of our mental capacity. Which turns us into walking Todo-Lists loaded with anxiety, afraid we might drop the ball on something important.

I am sure you know that feeling: Desperately trying to remember that one thing you need to talk to Dave about first thing on monday, will keep you mentally occupied all weekend.

This will not only take up a decent part of your overall mental capacity for thought, it will also create a significant amount of stress on your body, which is not able to discern between that thing Dave needs to know about and you worrying about that saber-toothed tiger that lurks in the bushes over there.

Wouldn't it be much more preferrable if there were a way to remember Dave and the Important Thing without you needing to think about it all the time? And of course you would need to somehow remember on Monday that this thing exists. Remembering on Tuesday would not do the trick. David Allen calls this having a "mind like water" in his Getting Things Done system: If you're able to clear your mind from those reminders and small but important things, you can react to new information in a natural way - like water reacts to pebbles thrown into it.

And of course, there's a solution for this, and everyone discovers it sooner or later: Write it down! Yes, of course, why didn't you think of this before? Write it down! Marvelous! Now that important thing is on a sticky note, or a piece of paper, or in a computer file.

But now you have to remember that you wrote it down. And where. And you still need to remember that you wrote it down when you finally see Dave on Monday.

So, while this is progress, it's also progress in the form of a dozend sticky notes strewn all over your work place, laptop and table.

Now you have two options: Option one is to consider the "remembering" task done - after all, you've written it down - and let the Zeigarnik effect kick in. But if you forget about your note like the waiter forgot about Zeigarnik and her colleagues, how could you remember it once Monday comes and you bump into Dave? So, you're stuck with option two, which is replacing remembering the important thing with remembering that you created a note.

Not much won there.

If you really want to harness the Zeigarnik effect to find some peace of mind and stop worrying about all your tasks and things you need to remember, your way of dealing with information has to have three characteristics:

  • It is your only source of truth. There is only one system that stores information and tasks.
  • It is complete. If your system only holds half of the things your mind needs to perform its work, your situation arguably becomes worse, because now you not only still need to remember things, you also now need to remember which things to remember and which not.
  • Information is easy to retrieve when you need it. Your system must be reactive to both situational and temporal cues.

Complete Capture of Information

While the first two characteristics can create their own specific challenges and issues, I'd like to focus here on what most people struggle with: Making sure that the information is available when you need it.

Many people think their knowledge management process is broken or that knowledge management is "not for them", simply because they don't get this third characteristic right.

Information Systems are about Retrieval, not Storage

When you start out to create your information system, it's very easy to fall into very clever trap:

Because you start out with the intent of "cleaning up", you instinctively create a system of information storage. You're basically filing away stuff to restore some sort of order. The problem is that your system is now perfect to do away with things. Not with surfacing them when you need them.

Instead of designing a system for storing information, you need to design a system for retrieving information. Bonus points if your system will surface information on its own when you need it.

Here's an example: I'm using a tool called Obsidian for all my task and information management. I've also installed a plugin for Obsidian that basically lets me time-code documents. When I'm preparing for a meeting, I write my notes, ideas, agenda, wishes for outcomes in the document, add the day of the meeting to it, and completely forget about the document again. Then, on the day of the meeting, the document will magically pop up in my daily overview and I'll have all my notes handy.

Niklas Luhmann apparently once said that his note-storing system (his famous "Zettelkasten") to him was like a conversation partner, a way to talk to your past self and generate new ideas from what you find in the system.

Ask yourself "Under which circumstances do I want to find this information again?" and not "what is the most logical way to store this information?".

The question you need to answer is not "What's the most logical way to store this piece of information I am acutely aware?", but rather "Under which circumstances will I want to find this piece of information again, the existance of which I will have completely forgotten until then?"

To answer this question, it is helpful to think about contexts: What will trigger the need for this information? Meeting with a certain person? Create a list for them. Needing to do something on a specific date? Write it in your calendar. Does the information contain a possible solution for a problem you might encounter sometime? File it under a description of that problem. This specifically is a really powerful move, because by the time you encounter the problem, your mind will be fully focused on it, and having a system that tells you 'Hey, if you have this problem, look at this document, it contains something really important and interesting is much more helpful than just having the solution written down somewhere.

In short, your information storage must be biased towards action, instead of being a mediocre replication of the index of a public library.

Many people I have worked with had the habit of filing emails according to the project they belong to. This structure always puzzled me. In order to know what they were supposed to do, they had to go through all of their folders, re-construct the current state of their projects by scanning the last couple of emails, and then deduce a next action for them based on this mental yoga.

Storing your emails with a bias towards action would be to create folders for specific types of action ("reply", "research", "implement" or whatever makes sense in your context) and then store emails of all projects in those folders. You can still archive them later if you want to, but with this structure, you at least get a clear view of what you're supposed to do without looking at all of your projects, all of the time.

Consider your future self and its needs when storing information

When storing information and creating notes, don't consider the circumstances under which you created the note, but rather under which you expect to find it again.

Think about the context, and what will be the trigger for it - a specific time, a certain place, a person, an action? Then file it in relation to this context to make sure you can resurface it when you need it.

Bias your system towards actions, to help you understand what your next step should be.

If you're confident that your notes are the conversation partner Niklas Luhmann spoke about, you can let go, and make the Zeigarnik effect your friend.

Photograph of Bluma Zeigarnik By Andrey Zeigarnik -, CC0,

Published 2022~12~11