Zeigarnik effect: Procrastinate to learn better

Sitting on the terrace of a Viennese café-restaurant, Bljuma Zeigarnik, a doctor of psychology, observes the ballet of the waiters. She is surprised by their disconcerting ease in remembering long and complex orders and by the fact that they forget their contents as soon as they are cashed. A few days later, to validate an intuition, the Russian doctor continues an experiment with 20 students to whom she assigns tasks:

  • 10 of them will perform and finish all actions
  • 10 more will only do part of it

The day after this year 1920, she noticed that learners who had unfinished tasks remembered better what they had done the day before.

It is the Zeigarnik effect, a far from trivial discovery that will open the way to new knowledge, advances and practices for mental health and learning.

3 surprising consequences of the Zeigarnik effect

Indeed, the results of the experiments carried out by Dr. Zeigarnik, now called the Zeigarnik effect, show two things:

  • Unfinished tasks are remembered better than completed ones.
  • If we are asked for the elements of a list that we have finished, we have already forgotten it.

Thus, from these conclusions will emerge three advantageous corollaries for learning.

The Mental Load

Ha that damn file! You just need the conclusion to write and this morning you have only that in mind. Yet 97% of the presentation is complete, so why is this 3% unfinished running through your head?

Indeed, when we start a task, a tension is created in the brain: it is the mental load. This tension is very useful because it allows us to optimize access to all our knowledge in order to complete a task. The pedagogy of mental management perfectly describes this cognitive process by which everyone learns in an optimum way thanks to their ability to be attentive, to understand, to reflect, to memorize and to imagine.

An (unpleasant) impression of never finishing anything.

Case closed, case closed. And hop! the brain puts it in the box of “cold cases” and moves on to another subject. And, strangely enough, we are now focusing on the other tasks that we have yet to… complete.

In fact, when you complete an activity, this tension is released and the brain forgets the completed actions to turn to those that remain to be processed.

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Hence this feeling of not moving forward.

The tension in the background

Now it’s good, your case is closed. There are only one or two points left to review. You have planned to move on to writing another report, but… You feel uncomfortable. A little thought often brings you back, without warning, to these two very small points of improvement…

Indeed, it is this tension of the brain in the background that prevents us from being able to concentrate entirely on another activity as long as we have not finished this one.

From these 3 results of Dr. Zeigarnik’s experiments 100 years ago, many experts in psychology, psychoanalysis and neurosciences such as Amélia Lobbé and Daniel Lagache have drawn significant benefits for mental healthlearning and productivity.

Let us therefore analyze in detail the impact of the Zeigarnik effect on learning through the following 5 mental strategies in order to

  • To amplify the positive side, that is to say, to help us complete the tasks started
  • To reduce the negative side, in other words to reduce the stress linked to unfinished activities

5 good reasons to use the Zeigarnik effect

How to boost motivation:

We have seen that completing a task frees the mind , so we are going to plan it.

In fact, when you make a to-do list in the morning, the Zeigarnik Effect informs us that our brain is energized, ready to learn, and more importantly, to complete those tasks. Thus, we will feel the motivation to go through with these actions.

Then, when we allow ourselves to cross off the items on the list as the tasks are accomplished, it gives us a feeling of well-being with this desire to do more because, unconsciously or not, we want to renew this pleasant feeling. It’s a bit like reaping the rewards through proof of results.

Finally, through the studies of Norwegian researcher Else-Marie Augusti, neuroscience has shown that the brain learns less well when it is stressed .“The more intense the stress, the more we are dispossessed of our intellectual faculties. Clear thinking is then no longer possible” – 

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Dr. Catherine Gueguen .

Therefore, to unload your mental load and reduce your stress, you will not be distracted by unfinished actions by creating a to-do list the night before (list of things to do) for the next day.

How to Reduce Procrastination

“Procrastinating is putting off putting away your toys until tomorrow when you can do it now,” says my mom.

In this world where stimulation and distraction are materialized by social media, accomplishing a task is difficult because the temptation to “switch” to more playful activities is great.

The Zeigarnik Effect encourages us to start early, now. Because we have understood: any task started creates a cerebral tension that will push us to complete it.

We have 5 short seconds during which we can start an action before we create an excuse for not doing it.

So get started and the Zeigarnik effect will do the rest!

How to improve memorization

In 2016, studies conducted by HEP, the university of teacher education,  showed that students who take short breaks tend to learn better and memorize better than those who work continuously.

Indeed, this result is in line with experiments conducted a century earlier by Dr. Bljuma Zeigarnik: we remember a task better when it is unfinished. Short mental and appropriate breaks (avoid going on social media which are captive!) will therefore promote memorization.

How to stay focused

First: Resist multi-tasking!

Now that we know more about the brain, imagine the stress it endures with 2 tasks to manage at the same time! First, we start an activity that we interrupt by another. Result, an accumulation of 2 unfinished activities which adds to our mental load .

We then understand why the Zeigarnik effect prohibits multitasking. Therefore, for optimum learning, it is better to take the tasks one after the other , by priority and only move on to the next one if the previous one is finished.

Then: Maintain focus

So, should we start with the most difficult task? Opinions differ. If an action is too difficult, it may fail to demotivate the learner. If we take refuge in those that are easier, we then take the risk of slowing down our learning. It’s best to start with the most difficult task and break it down into small, easily accessible actions . Thus the motivation remains high and the impression of advancing will be galvanizing.

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n addition, the brain does not like complexity so it will provide us with all the tools so that the processing of it is the easiest to perform. Neurologically, breaking down small actions will guarantee their accomplishment during the day and therefore relieve stress from the brain . And at the same time, as seen above, this pleasant taste of reward thanks to this proof of result, will guarantee a high level of motivation to continue the next day.

To sum up

We have seen that the Zeigarnik effect is in a way the establishment of motivating and stress-free “cliffhangers” in life. A cliffhanger? It’s a type of ending, very common in series and soap operas where the anxiety is at its height and which presupposes a sequel.So ! Your child has managed to learn his multiplication table from 3 to 3×5 and tomorrow he is tackling the rest – 3×6 to 3×10? What suspense! And what is the motivation if he feels he has mastered the start of the table?

To sum up, here is what we will do so that he gets the maximum benefit from the Zeigarnik effect so that he learns better while keeping his motivation :

  • Create a todo-list the day before
  • Start with the most difficult task and break it down into small, accessible tasks.
  • take breaks
  • Forget multitasking!
  • Focus on one task at a time

5 effective habits to wear for everyone to put in place today!

So let’s go!

If you have any other tricks to reveal, feel free to leave them in the comments. And if you enjoyed this article or want to ask me questions, do so! I will be happy to answer you. See you soon!

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