Do you have trouble getting started in the morning on big tasks? Do you wish it would be easier to remember your intentions for healthy behaviors? Do you like to improve your memory of what you have read in books or blogs? All these questions may have answers that started in a busy Viennese restaurant in the 1920s and lead to three tips on the benefits of uncompleted tasks.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 9 minutes

On Wednesday morning, I was collecting my squash gear for evening squash practice, when I realized I had to leave for the office right away in order to still be on time for my first meeting. I had collected some of my gear, but not others and I was afraid that I might forget some of my training outfit later, thinking that I had already collected everything. So I put one shoe demonstrably on top of my squash bag and put the other one back in the closet. To my surprise, my mind wandered to this unfinished task multiple times, and I did not even need the reminder of the one shoe on top of my squash bag to remind me of collecting my remaining sports gear. Why was this task remembered so easily?

Also, when I have an important PowerPoint presentation to prepare in the morning, I seem to remember much better if I make a small start at the end of the previous day. It seems to be lingering in my mind, making me think of how I want to design the slides in the deck. So when I return to the task next morning, it can feel like the slides are designing themselves. Why is that?

A busy Viennese restaurant in the 1920s

Psychologist Bluma Zeignarnik found the answer to these questions about a century ago. One day, while sitting in a busy Viennese restaurant in the 1920s, she noticed that the waiters could successfully remember the details of the orders for the tables. They did not write any of the orders down, but just remembered what each person ordered and would serve each person the drink and food that they had ordered.

After they had paid and left the restaurant, Zeignarnik realized that she had forgotten her scarf and went back to the restaurant to retrieve it. She asked the waiter who had attended her table and had remembered all orders by heart, if he had seen her scarf. The waiter looked at her blankly and said he could not remember her. How could the waiter with a perfect memory not remember that she had been there only a few minutes ago? Zeignarnik hypothesized that as soon as the food was delivered and the check was closed, the waiters’ memories of the orders disappeared from their minds.

The Zeigarnik effect

She then conducted a series of experiments to investigate what is now known as the Zeigarnik effect: people remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks. People were given one task at a time and 18 to 22 tasks in total to complete. The tasks themselves consisted of manual work (e.g. constructing a box of cardboard, or making clay figures) and of mental problems (e.g. completing a puzzle, or solving arithmetic problems). The time required for most of these tasks was 3-5 minutes.

Half of these tasks were interrupted before the respondents could complete them. Following the last task the respondents were asked to recall the tasks that they worked on. A record was kept noting the order of recall. Very often a number of tasks would be mentioned, and then a pause would occur during which respondents tried to remember what other tasks they had worked on. Zeigarnik was interested in the type of tasks that were remembered before this pause. In other words; what tasks were top of mind. The results showed that uncompleted tasks were remembered 90% better than completed tasks.

When the Zeigarnik effect is most powerful

This shows why my uncompleted task of packing my squash gear lingered in my mind and why I kept thinking about it. Psychologists Kenneth McGraw and Jirina Fiala from University of Mississippi showed that this can also lead to the desire to keep working on this task. They interrupted their respondents before they could complete a spatial reasoning task. After the experiment was over, 86% of participants decided to stay to work on the task. However, this effect was most powerful when respondents were not given any incentive for their participation. If participants received a financial reward only 58% of participants decided to stay to work on the task. Furthermore, they stayed much shorter than participants who received no reward. Thus, certain conditions need to be met before the Zeigarnik effect will manifest itself:

Motivation should be intrinsic: People should perform the task because they enjoy the task and not because they are rewarded. As shown by McGraw and Fiala people were much less motivated to complete the unfinished tasks when they were rewarded.

The task should be challenging: People perform the task because they like to gain mastery over challenges and taking in new experiences. People will not engage in tasks that are too easy, because there is no challenge and they will not engage in tasks that are too difficult because the challenge is too great and they may not learn anything from it.

The timing of the interruption should be appropriate: When the task has just started it is still unclear whether people will enjoy the task and whether it is challenging enough. If the task is almost finished, on the other hand, there is not much challenge left and the Zeigarnik effect is likely to be limited. So the timing of the interruption should be just right for the Zeigarnik effect to be most effective.

These three conditions are satisfied when I am making a small start on a PowerPoint presentation at the end of the previous day. I am highly motivated to make an excellent presentation, not because I will be rewarded after the presentation, but because delivering a perfect presentation in itself feels rewarding. The task is also challenging, because I want to deliver a convincing presentation which is visually attractive and strikes the right notes with the audience. The timing of the interruption is also appropriate. I have more or less decided on the topics and the storyline in which I will deliver these topics. It isn’t set in stone yet, but I have a good idea how the presentation is going to look like. All these three elements together make that the presentation will be lingering in my mind until I can return to the task next morning. You can use the Zeigarnik effect as well to get started on challenging tasks!

Using the Zeigarnik effect to improve your well being

Getting started in the morning. Many people have trouble getting started on their working day. I was always looking for excuses to getting started: ‘I do not have inspiration yet, let’s get another cup of coffee first’ or ‘Let’s start with checking my e-mail’. But not anymore. Nowadays, I use the Zeigarnik effect to get started in the morning. You might think you should start working on big task first thing in the morning, when you are fresh. But that might not be the best idea. better to start working on big tasks at the end of the day and start small. If you want to write a blog in the morning (or a memo, an important e-mail, a PowerPoint presentation): write the first couple of sentences and some key words in the order you want to address them. This should be the appropriate timing for the interruption. Remember it is important to start the task, not to complete it. The next morning you will be full of energy, and eager to continue working on this big task as long as you are motived and the task is challenging.

Remember your Golden Behaviors. The same principles can be used to remember to exercise on a regular basis. You could remember your intentions to exercise on Wednesday evening, by getting your sports gear together on Wednesday morning: you lay out your sports clothes neatly and make sure your iPod is ready and fully charged. But leave out one important thing: you could leave one shoe on top of your gear and leave the other one in the closet in order to interrupt the process of preparing for you run. Because of the interrupted process, you are more likely to remember it and will be more likely to follow up on your intentions for healthy behaviors. I do admit, collecting your gear is not a very challenging task, but hopefully it will get you started the first few times. For maintaining these Golden Behaviors you will have to look for additional nudges in my other blogs.

How to best gain insights from books and blogs. You may also take advantage of the Zeigarnik effect when studying. You are more likely to remember topics if you take appropriate breaks, that is, take a break while studying a topic that is not completed yet. In this way the messages from the study materials will be better remembered. So if you want to improve learning information from books, you should stop halfway through a chapter and continue reading next day. If you want to remember tips from our blogs better, you should stop a blog halfway and continue reading next day. But I guess that it is too late now…

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Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Photo by Robert Stokoe via Pexels


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