According to the Zeigarnik effect, individuals are more likely to remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed ones.
The idea behind this effect is that when we aren’t given a chance to finish a task, it continues to ruminate in our minds, and we regret not being able to complete it. But when we finish a task, our minds no longer have to think about it at all.
One study by Baumeister and Masicampo at Florida State University took a deep look into this phenomenon.
In the first phase of the study, they had individuals take part in a “warm up” task that they were purposely not allowed to finish. It was then found that these individuals later performed much worse on a brainstorming exercise.
This is because instead of participants focusing all their energy on brainstorming, many of them were still drifting off and thinking about the previous task which they weren’t able to complete.
This is evidence that not being able to finish tasks creates a kind of “cognitive strain” on our brains.
In the second phase of the study, the researchers found something much more interesting. They allowed some individuals to write a plan on how they would finish the “warm up” task, even though they wouldn’t be given enough time to complete it.
The results found that individuals who were allowed to “write a plan” didn’t experience the Zeigarnik effect, but were instead freed from the cognitive strain simply by articulating a plan on how they would hypothetically complete the task.
The implications here are big. One, simply by making a step-by-step plan on how you can complete a task will help minimize the stress associated with actually getting it done.
I’ve noticed a similar effect when I was writing long papers at college. Just writing a short, bullet-point outline of the things I wanted to cover throughout the paper cut my stress and anxiety in half.
My thought process became, “Okay, well at least now I know how I’ll approach this task once I’m ready to get started.” I had a rough map in my head on how everything was going to work out, so there was no longer a need to ruminate about it incessantly.
Our brains are built to solve problems (see the purpose of thinking), but when we don’t get to find a solution, even a temporary one, our brains often continue to stress out about it – because we are wired to reflect on problems and search for answers.
Make an effort to write out your plans more often. Breakdown your goals into smaller tasks, and put them in the order they need to be accomplished.
This will help give you a mental picture of how to better get to your goals. And while your plan probably won’t be perfect, it’ll be a great jump-start in getting closer to what you want.
I have a personal folder on my computer dedicated to projects that I currently don’t have time for but one day want to pursue. They include summaries of film scripts, music projects, comedy sketches, psychology e-books, future business plans, etc.
Now, I may not get to all these projects throughout my lifetime, but it’s nice to know that I have a plan for them. When I’m finally ready to make them happen, I at least have the building blocks to get started – that takes a huge load off of my shoulders.
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