The Zeigarnik effect and memory: obsessive thoughts

Have you ever felt anxiety or even guilt about some unfinished work? When you did not have time to finish it, postponed it, and as a result, could not sleep at night, constantly returning to this unfinished task? Why can't we remember something like an important event in a couple of days, but can't get rid of some nonsense for years?

If so, you will be surprised to learn the cause of such a condition is not conscience, not a habit to bring the project to the end or a personal tendency to excessive worrying. A similar effect, to varying degrees, is typical for all the people, and has been known to psychologists for a relatively long time.

This is the Zeigarnik effect, the essence of which lies in the fact that unfinished business causes internal stress, making one remember these things and return to them in our thoughts time and time again.

About the Zeigarnik effect

Everyone knows that there are many tasks that require attention 'here and now' in the process of doing work. The person feels both anxiety and discomfort until all these tasks are completed, often without realizing what is causing it. The more tasks and the higher the level of individual responsibility, the greater the discomfort one feels.

This method can often be seen on TV shows or soap operas to entice a person to sit in front of the TV. Episodes are specially created with an innuendo effect that draws intrigue and makes you look forward to the next show.

You may have also encountered this technique as a student. Do you remember how well you knew all the information to pass your exams successfully, but then forgot everything shortly after? This is not unusual. The need to use this information disappeared and it is had been erased from your memory.

How was this effect determined?

In the 1920s, the successful psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered this amazing effect. Like many discoveries, it was stumbled upon when a waiter at a cafe remembered a very large order without recording it. Zeigarnik talked to him and he replied that he remembers all the unfulfilled orders but completely forgets those that have already been finished. This led to the assumption that a person perceives both finished and unfinished tasks differently, as their significance status changes.

About the Zeigarnik study

Next came a series of experiments in which intellectual tasks were given to students. The researcher arbitrarily determined the time for each task and had the opportunity to declare that time had expired, even if the problem was not solved.

A few hours later, the students were asked to recall the conditions of all the tasks. It was found that unfinished tasks were remembered twice as efficiently as completed tasks - this is the Zeigarnik effect of incomplete action.

Zeigarnik discovered that unfinished tasks were cited as examples of implementation problems 90% more often than completed tasks. She concluded that there is a significant advantage to keeping interrupted tasks in memory compared to those that have been solved. Her article, "On Completed and Unfinished Tasks," published in 1927, provides extensive evidence of her initial research into the Zeigarnik effect.

Other studies confirming this effect

The existence of the Zeigarnik effect was confirmed by British psychologist John Baddeley, who used sets of anagrams in his experiment. Participants were given a limited time to solve a certain number of anagrams, and the word "answer" was provided to them only when they could not solve an anagram within the specified time.

Interestingly, all participants were able to recall the unsolved anagrams much better than the ones they had solved. Completed processes and tasks provide a feeling of satisfaction and completion, quickly becoming a thing of the past and leaving room for future goals.


Not all research has provided support for the Zeigarnik effect. During experiments, it was discovered that the effect is greatly influenced by the level of motivation present when performing the task. Actions that are performed with strong personal motivation are remembered better when they are completed than when they are interrupted for some reason.

In particular, individuals with high motivation will be more concerned about tasks they cannot complete, while individuals with low motivation may find even an unfinished task to be less memorable.

Operating principle

Our short-term memory has limited capacity, meaning we can only retain a small amount of information for a short period of time.

Here you can take a free short-term memory test.

To remember more information, we need to periodically retrieve it from our long-term memory, which can require significant mental effort. The more information we try to remember at once, the harder it becomes to recall later.

This is especially crucial for waiters who need to remember details of their customers' orders until they finish their meal and leave the restaurant.

A variety of puzzles and crosswords are excellent helpers in this mental reboot. With the help of them, people manage to train their memory and memorize much better and more. An example is the Zeigarnik effect. We seem to be playing with this information, throwing it back, then again returning it to our consciousness. The more we concentrate on the unfinished processes, the less likely we are to forget about them.

But what else is interesting — you may have some very old unfinished tasks that are already forgotten. But they can save their stress and thereby influence your behavior, you can sometimes remember them. Such cases should be remembered and completed, if this is possible, of course.

With the help of the Zeigarnik effect, we can clearly understand the principle on which our memory works. When information is perceived, it is often stored in sensory memory for a very short time. With increased attention to the information, it moves into short-term memory. If the information is recalled frequently, it can gradually move into the long-term part of our memory, even though most memories eventually fade away.

Starting a task creates tension in our memory that doesn't dissipate until the task is completed. This tension constantly drives us towards completing the task. Our desire to complete tasks affects our memory and behavior. People tend to seek a sense of completeness and dislike incompleteness.

How to use this effect for maximum benefit?

The imprint imposed by the Zeigarnik effect can be traced by simple examples from everyday life. How can you apply the Zeigarnik effect for your benefit? Basically, it can be used as a tool for time management and quick goal achievement. When you start a task, try to complete it before moving on to the next one. This way, you won't end up with multiple unfinished tasks that create a sense of mental burden.

Gradually store information for better study results. Don't wait until the last night before an exam to study. Instead, try to space out your studying over several days. This way, the information will move from your short-term memory to your long-term memory more effectively, and you'll be able to remember more.

If you are faced with the goal of remembering something important, it is sometimes worth taking small breaks. Review it several times, and then take a break. Do not repeat the information again and again. Try to return mentally to the information that was studied in those moments when you are focused on other matters.

Overcoming Procrastination

The hardest thing to do is to start. The first thing we encounter is the most difficult part of the work. At this point, we switch to anything just to avoid starting the task. Hours, days, and weeks can pass, but if we don't feel ready, no progress is made on our task.

To overcome this, divide your task into several small steps. Once you've started the first step, you'll find yourself thinking of the next steps.

By acting in this way, you can quickly achieve your goal because the task will be performed much more efficiently than if attempted all at once. You can calmly finish one job and move leisurely onto the next task.

The importance of interest and attention

Nowadays, some techniques for memorizing information are based on the pattern discovered by Zeigarnik. This effect is still widely used by filmmakers and TV reporters: to keep the audience hooked on a show, they finish each episode at an interesting point, leaving the characters' actions incomplete. The use of this interruption tactic has demonstrated its positive influence on both brand involvement and memorization.

As a result, the following conclusions are widely used today in the advertising and media fields:

  • 1) The video should be intriguing from the first seconds, so that a person feels compelled to continue watching.
  • 2) Advertising innuendo or plot twists can contribute to better memorization. These tricks can guide a potential buyer not only through the viewing process, but also the decision-making process.

Promote mental well-being

Sometimes it is time to put an end to unfinished business due to a specific reason. Unfulfilled tasks pursue and hunt us down. Thoughts about these matters constantly bother us, even at night, disturbing our sleep. However, the more we are disturbed by unfinished business, the faster we proceed to fulfill it, and this effect works in our favor. Repetitive thoughts can encourage people to complete a job. After the task is completed, we feel more confident and successful.


Café waiters always remember unpaid orders but often forget about those that have already been paid in advance. In other words, we remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. This is the essence of the Zeigarnik effect. People constantly concentrate on unfinished processes during their activity since the desire for their completion is incredibly strong. Take periodic breaks between work to ensure that your productivity is always at its best.