Corey Wilks, Psy.D.

Helping Creators Reach Their Potential

Search
Close this search box.

The Zeigarnik Effect: The Reason You Feel Constantly Overwhelmed

You know how having too many open Chrome tabs bogs your computer down?

The same happens to your brain.

Unfinished tasks keep “running” in the background.

It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect.

Here’s how it works and what to do about it…

•••

Quick History of the Zeigarnik Effect:

The Zeigarnik Effect is named after Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik.

While sitting in a busy restaurant in Vienna, she noticed the servers had better memories of unpaid orders vs. paid ones.

Once the customers paid, the servers struggled to remember the exact details of the orders.

But why?

Because our brains are wired to remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones.

Like a to-do list, once we finish a task, our brain checks it off to free up mental bandwidth.

But this also means that, the more unfinished tasks we have, the more resources our brain dedicates to keeping track of them.

•••

Examples of the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect is why storytellers use cliffhangers. We keep reading/watching to find out what happens next because our brains are driven to seek closure. Once resolved, we can forget and move on. Until then, we lean in with rapt attention.

The Zeigarnik Effect is why we suck at “multi-tasking.” What most people call “multi-tasking” is actually what psychologists call “task-switching.” True multitasking is known as parallel processing—where you simultaneously do multiple things at the exact same time.

The reason what most people call multi-tasking isn’t true parallel processing is because we rapidly switch our attention between different tasks. For example, you can’t simultaneously check emails and do deep work—you rapidly switch between reading and replying to a few emails, then switch back to working on your “main” task for the day.

Because when we’re doing something and get interrupted, our brain keeps that “tab” open—draining our CPU.

The Zeigarnik Effect is one reason perfectionists struggle with anxiety. They obsess over details and having unrealistic expectations. Aka, they drown in unfinished tasks. So the Zeigarnik Effect keeps their brains bogged down, poorly focused, and stressed out. They can’t let things go.

The Zeigarnik Effect is one reason we struggle to fall asleep. For many of us, bedtime is the one time we’re not surrounded with distractions. So our brain goes into overdrive refreshing and resurfacing all the tabs we’ve kept open throughout the day.

So what can you do about the Zeigarnik Effect to stop feeling overwhelmed?

•••

Strategies to Overcome the Zeigarnik Effect

Here are three simple strategies that help me overcome the Zeigarnik Effect:

Ditch the To-Do List

Switch from a to-do list to a Needle Movers List.

To-do lists are never-ending. Like fighting a hydra, for every task you complete, two sprout in its place.

A Needle Mover list only has the 1-3 highest ROI tasks for the day. Way easier to remember, track, and complete.

I write mine out on a post-it note on my desk because I can’t fit much more than a few things on it. Plus, it’s satisfying to crumple it up and throw it away once I finish them.

Give Yourself Permission to Forget

Build what Tiago Forte calls a “Second Brain,” which is somewhere you can save information to come back to later. A second brain can be a notebook, a program like Notion (which is what I use), or anything else that works for you. Check out Tiago’s book, Building a Second Brain (aff) to learn more about how to develop your own system.

The more tasks and information you can offload, the fewer your brain will have to constantly monitor.

You don’t build a Second Brain to remember.

You build it so you can forget.

Stop Overcomplicating Everything

The more complex something is, the more moving parts you have to keep track of.

So the simpler you can make a task, the less it’ll take up your mental bandwidth.

A simple question to ask to help you stop overcomplicating everything is, “What is my actual goal here?” Then only focus on tasks related to that.

•••

Final Thoughts on the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect unintentionally forces our brain to dedicate more memory and attention to unfinished tasks.

So if you want to improve your focus and free up your memory, minimize and offload unfinished tasks.

That way, you can stop bogging your brain down with remembering unfinished tasks and use it for what it’s best at:

Being creative, solving problems, and understanding complex ideas.

•••

P.S.

You’ve probably heard of Shiny Object Syndrome and how it causes distractions. But have you heard of Shiny Object Syndrome’s little brother, Yak Shaving?

Check out this article next to learn what it is and how it keeps you constantly distracted…


Unlock the Free Masterclass

The Psychology of Success Masterclass

Access proven strategies that have helped entrepreneurs all over the world succeed in life and business.

As a bonus, you'll also get the Creator Alchemy newsletter, where you'll get deep dives into the psychology of success delivered straight to your inbox each week.