Barry Shannon: Suffering from the Zeigarnik effect? There are benefits...

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EVER got home after a busy day and a thought has been nagging away at you? That piece of work you didn’t get finished because something else more important came up? Maybe you got called into a meeting and hadn’t time to circle back round to it before leaving to pick up the kids? Maybe your boss landed several other jobs on your desk? Or maybe you had to go help someone else?

Whatever it was, it lingers, annoying you and pestering your mind, distracting you from what you are doing now and ensuring you can’t leave work behind you at the office.

Perhaps you are working on a larger project that won’t be finished for ages, but no matter where you are or what you are doing it creeps stealthily back into your head and won’t dislodge.

There is something in your head that keeps drawing you back to that unfinished work. It’s a psychological effect known as the Zeigarnik effect. Essentially it describes the tendency we have to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks more than finished ones.

It originated from Zeigarnik watching waiters in a restaurant and noticing that they seemed to forget all detail about orders once the order was finished out, but were very clear on the details when still serving the tables. The unfinished took priority in their minds.

One theory is that this is due to your short-term memory being transient. Information gets stored there first, but space in short term memory is limited and length of storage is short, so to hold onto that information the brain has to keep rehearsing the information, keeping your attention focused on it. Keeping it lodged in short term. Once the job is done and you don’t need the info anymore it can be dispensed with or stored elsewhere.

It’s a similar principle in study. At exam time you work so hard to cram loads of information into your head so you can then regurgitate it all onto paper during the exam. Once the exam is over however that detailed knowledge seems to disappear (exams being a test of recall rather than critical thinking is a whole other argument).

Your brain also typically looks for closure. It’s why we finish out an unbroken circle on a page, it’s why we join the dots, it’s why we can extrapolate from the incomplete, it’s why we read to the end of a book, even though it might be rubbish.

We’ve been schooled to think that being able to multitask is a great thing, that you are somehow lees capable if you can’t do 4 or 5 things at once, but that’s not necessarily correct.

Sure, if you are engaged in quick, easily finished jobs it can work (to an extent). Even then however how many times has a pan on the hob boiled over because you were busy focusing on something else that you thought you could finish quickly, and then moved on to something else and something else again, losing track of time until the water creeps over the side. How often have you drifted out of listening in a conversation to try and solve something else, then been caught out when asked a direct question.

If you are at home watching TV or walking the dog, distraction is often not so bad. Most of the time it doesn’t result in any great catastrophe; but if you are in work, engaged on an important task then lack of focus can result in lack of productivity. And the effects of that can most definitely be unwanted and unhelpful, perhaps impacting deadlines, other people’s work, client expectations and maybe even resulting in lost business and reputational damage.

So, if we know that there is a cognitive bias affecting our performance, how can we employ coping mechanisms to deal with it?

First of all, if we believe the brain doesn’t like unfinished tasks and keeps drawing us back to these them simply don’t have so many things incomplete at the same time. Multitask less. Train yourself to focus on finishing out one thing at a time. This reduces the cognitive load and helps you direct the brain’s resources to the task at hand.

Prioritise beforehand and agree what is most important. If you know there will be natural breaks in a task (maybe waiting on interim results to come through, supplies to arrive or other people to complete their work) by all means start on something else, but keep the volume of different jobs or activities limited.

Schedule some breaks in for yourself, if none naturally occur, but give yourself a set time to return. Set an end date so you focus and will actually get the job finished within acceptable parameters.

Look at the overall process itself. Apply lean methodology to what you do. If a task, step or stage is inefficient, wasteful, if it doesn’t add value or is just plain not required then eliminate it altogether and don’t spend valuable time on something that might distract you.

Making a to-do list can also help. It can give your brain the sense that things have been completed and lead to less distraction as you are trying to relax at home or trying to get some sleep at the end of the day.

Finally, are there any benefits to the Zeigarnik effect?

Well, there are potentially some: beginning a task can help avoid procrastination, as once it’s begun your brain will nag you to come back and complete it, so it can help lead to a task being ultimately completed and assist productivity in that sense.

There is also a school of though that when learning, you will recall information better if you take a break during your learning and come back to a subject rather than try to consume it all in one go.

Therefore, it can lead to better productivity, if managed correctly. The key to it all however is prioritisation, volume and finishing. Don’t have too many important things on the go at any one time, make sure you address the ones that have most importance and ensure you finish them out as soon as possible.

As the old saying goes, ‘eaten bread is soonest forgotten’.

Barry Shannon is head of HR at STATSports