The Zeigarnik Effect – How incomplete tasks improve our memory or do they?

Image Credit – Mat Brown on

Have you heard of the Zeigarnik effect?

If not, then read on!

It’s your birthday and deciding to give a treat to your friends; you take them to a fancy restaurant.  The place and the ambience are beautiful, and everyone soon gets comfortable in their seats.

As you decide to order, you realize most of your friends have a varied palate and would like to order as per their discreet taste.

The waiter comes in to take the order from 10 people for 25 different things, including drinks and appetizers and leaves after taking it to inform the kitchen about it.

And, just then a few of your friends call him again to change a part of what they ordered earlier.

The waiter repeats all 25 items while asking which ones need to change, as everyone gawk at him, for his unbelievable recall.

Even the order placed while having the meal for extras continue to arrive smoothly and served precisely to the same person who wanted it.

You are amazed by his memory, and everyone appreciates his extraordinary effort in serving an excellent meal.

As everyone leaves, one of the friends suddenly recollects having forgotten his wallet inside.

Banking on the excellent memory of the waiter, he hopes to find it quickly.

As he walks back and asks the waiter if he has seen or know where his wallet is, the waiter denies remembering anything.

‘I remember everything only till the table is occupied, once people are gone, I too move on’ he replied while running towards the new table he took an order from.

Something similar on memory was discovered by Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik who studied under famous Psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1927.

At the University of Berlin, she was studying at, found out how waiters remember tables which are still not paid much more efficiently than the ones which are done or complete.

She replicated a similar experiment and asked participants to solve a puzzle while interrupting them in subtle ways.  Post the experiment; her finding proved her hypothesis, as tasks wherein participants were interrupted, were recalled 90% better compared to activities done without any interruptions.

She explained how incomplete tasks or activities are retained longer within our minds than the ones which our mind deem to be complete. 

Completed projects when asked about later may have a lesser chance of recall compared to the ones we are still working on or which are incomplete.

So, if you wish to remember something, try to memorize it in chunks.  Learn something for a while, take a break and learn the next part and so on.

Giving oneself conscious breaks in between learning can help us in remembering it better.  It should not be though confused with shallow learning, as every chunk requires an earnest effort in memorizing it.

This will ensure better retention and long-term memory.

Another way to use the finding would be to complete a task and move over to the next one.

The longer we keep increasing our to-do lists, the higher strain it will have on our brain as it would continue to delve over incomplete activities.

Remember how we find it difficult to focus when there is a question in our mind, but decide not to ask it as it continues to affect our concentration leading to unsatisfactory results later on.

So, better ask, clarify, complete and move on.

This will ensure our mind remains entirely focused on the task at hand, which is to learn, instead of ruminating about any possible random question lurking in our minds.

What are your thoughts about it?

Do share!

Hey, do check out my book – 21 Short and Inspiring Stories by clicking the link below. Would be highly obliged if you could share the link with your friends and acquaintance.


11 thoughts on “The Zeigarnik Effect – How incomplete tasks improve our memory or do they?

  1. I read an article once about a man that could walk into a room of 300 people meet them all and remember every name as they left. He did this through association. You associate task not complete and why not complete and it will stay on your mind until resolved. I’ve tried it with about 30 people and the theory worked, maybe not 100% but close enough, cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Association and creating a vivid story with images and all, is also what a lot of people do. I really liked the anecdote you shared and the fact that you tried it out yourself is tremendous. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Zeigarnik effect is almost like the brain’s way to make sure we finish something. This is both good and bad. It makes us hold unfinished tasks in our minds and this creates stress and we can’t sleep. The good thing is that it helps us break free from procrastination.

    Liked by 1 person

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