We Can’t Break Physical Laws. We Can Break Ourselves Against Them.
Do you often feel tensed thinking of tasks started and not completed? Do you find interruptions frustrating and wish they go away so you can complete tasks started a while back?
If you do, you are not alone and you are likely to experience the Zeigarnik Effect, named after Bluma Zeigarnick, a Lithuanian-born psychologist. In the late 20s, she noticed that waiters seemed to remember complex orders in progress, but forgot all about them when completed. She conducted further studies in which people were required to complete puzzles while being randomly interrupted. It turns out study subjects remembered the interrupted tasks 90% better than the completed tasks and associated interruptions with feelings of frustration. And during the last 80 years, it has repeatedly been demonstrated that people experience unpleasant thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008, pg. 122).
Whether it’s something we want to finish or not, it’s our mind’s sometimes incomprehensible but overwhelming desire to finish what we’ve started. Our memory signals the conscious mind, which may be focused on new goals, that a previous activity was left incomplete. It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience a state of tension which manifests itself in improved memory for the uncompleted task. As uncompleted tasks accumulate, our level of anxiety will increase and it becomes difficult to pursue any single objective with uninterrupted concentration.
Unfinished tasks tend to constantly interrupt our thoughts, a sort of auto-pilot system reminding us of what needs to be completed. The cognitive effort that comes with these intrusive thoughts of the unfinished task is terminated only once the person returns to complete the task.
Interrupting our efforts to finish a task before it’s complete also seems to interfere with our ability to accurately estimate our productivity, lengthening our estimate of how much time we’ve spent and how much longer it will take us to finish, according to a 1992 study by Greist-Bousquet & Schiffman.
This automatic system that signals our conscious mind that we have unfinished business, provides evidence of a neurological basis for the teachings of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, and others on the crucial importance of choosing what not to do. Peter Drucker emphasized the importance of using resources on the 10% of things that make 90% of the difference. He described leadership as doing the right things — versus management, doing things right. Likewise Jim Collins describes his “Stop Doing List” as the cornerstone of how he allocates his most valuable resource: time. Stephen Covey espoused effectiveness more than efficiency; getting the right things done at the expense of getting lots of things done.
Our capacity for work and our capacity for attention are limited and are governed by physical laws. Kanban Systems leverage the Zeigarnik effect and help individuals and organizations stay focused on what is important, reduce stress, and improve predictability, morale and productivity. I will show you how in my next blog.
Are you noticing the Zeigarnick effect around you? Please leave a comment below.
Zeigarnik, B.V. (1927). Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen (The Retention of Completed and Uncompleted Activities), Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1-85
Baumeister, R.F., & Bushman, B.J., (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature. United States: Thompson Wadsworth.
Greist-Bousquet, S., Schiffman, N. (1992). The effect of Task interruption and closure on perceived duration. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30(1), 9-11