Research has shown that talented people did not become geniuses overnight. They are not extraordinary creatures with inexhaustible resources of willpower, oceans of time, or alien-like talents. Most of these successful people use their time in an extremely efficient way. And many of them use the Zeigarnik effect to do so.
The Zeigarnik effect, developed by Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik and German psychologist Kurt Lewin, is based on the theory that unfinished tasks preoccupy your mind. And your brain cannot relax until you finish the unfinished tasks.
During a summer day in 1930s Berlin, Lewin was sitting outside at a restaurant, wondering how all the waiters seemed to be able to remember all their tables’ open tabs. As soon as a group left a table, the waiter forgot about it to make room in his mind for a new tab.
Zeigarnik used Lewin’s observation to conduct experiments determining the science behind it. These memory experiments affirmed the Zeigarnik effect: the brain “keeps the motor running” until unfinished tasks are completed.
A more recent study shows the Zeigarnik effect is still relevant today. During that research, a group of study subjects was asked to complete a jigsaw puzzle. But they weren’t given enough time to complete it. Ninety percent of the test subjects decided to complete the puzzle well after the research had stopped. They could not leave the puzzle unfinished.
3 Steps to utilize the Zeigarnik Effect
Step 1 — Take the first action, and don’t look further ahead than 60 to 90 minutes. This is to jump-start the brain. You can create a time slot for your workday, for example, by defining when you will take a break.
For instance: You start your workday at 8:30 by creating a mind map for a new project that’s been assigned to you. Making a mind map is a way to create an overview of a complex project. By doing this, you get a sense of calm, and the confidence to move forward. When you start your task, set a timer to go off after 60 or 90 minutes, at which point you take a short break.
It’s important to think carefully about your next move, and make your first task an easy one to get momentum going. When we feel stress, we have a tendency to get demotivated. A mind map is an approachable task to start with. Rather than jumping into a complex project right from the start.
Step 2 — Let the Zeigarnik effect do its thing. This should happen naturally. Once your brain is fired up, the Zeigarnik effect goes to work: your brain wants nothing more than to finish the things you started.
What most of us find difficult is to let go after 90 minutes (or whenever your timer has gone off) and take a break. When we’re not done, we want to push forward and keep working through our break. But this causes the Zeigarnik effect to be exhausting rather than productive.
Step 3 — Only interrupt your workflow for break time. This is a crucial step in the time management of geniuses. Research has shown that musicians and long-distance flight pilots know it best: the true power of the Zeigarnik effect can only be used when you take breaks at the right times.
Just like any other muscle in our body, our brain needs regular moments of rest to be able to recover. So, stop when the timer goes off. Get up from your desk and go for a refill of water or coffee.
Ideal of 90 minutes + 10 minutes
In a study of top musicians, the ideal schedule was 90 minutes of full focus on a musical session followed by a 10-minute break.
If you have a job where you can’t just walk away for 10 minutes, try to adjust it to whatever fits in your situation. Sixty minutes of focused work with a five-minute coffee break, for example.
When the American Federal Aviation Administration researched this, it found that long moments of intense focus (flying an airplane) alternated with perfectly timed break sessions was incredibly useful on long flights, reporting that pilot productivity and focus rose by 16%.
To best utilize the Zeigarnik, you should only interrupt your work with scheduled break sessions. Do not send out tweets, check your messages, or sort out paperwork — and avoid multi-tasking.