How to use the Zeigarnik Effect


Ever noticed how unfinished business stays on your mind?  What if there was a useful side to this that could make you more productive.  An appreciation for how to use the Zeigarnik Effect could be the answer.


Something on your mind

It is common for your mind to be active in the background, thinking about more than is in your conscious mind.  The subconscious mind is an essential system for keeping us alive; without it consciously issuing instructions to breathe in, breath out would soon get tiresome.

However your subconscious mind is busy with many other things as well; for examples.

  • Running your body – maintaining homeostasis
  • Calculating where to put your feet while walking
  • Processing information from the senses
  • Storing memories
  • Running strategies

In each of the above cases, your subconscious will on occasion bring needs to your conscious mind; perhaps a bit more concentration crossing rough terrain.  If you are in any doubt about how clever you subconscious is, just ask yourself who ‘watches the shop’ while you sleep.


What is the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect is named after a Soviet Psychologist and Psychiatrist; Bulma Zeigarnik – 1900 to 1988.  You can read more about Bulma Zeigarnik on this Wikipedia page.

During a visit to a coffee house, Zeigarnik was intrigued that the waiter appeared to have an incredible memory for what people had been served; even a group with multiple items.  Common for groups of people to spend several hours talking and making reorders, the waiter was able to correctly remember the items when it came time for payment.  This could be hours later.

Zeigarnik’s own mind still working on this show of great memory after leaving the coffee shop.  She later returned to ask the waiter if he had been making a record, perhaps on a pad she could not see.  The waiter explained that he relied, confidently on his memory while the order was ‘open’.  However, once payment had been made he could no longer with any certainty remember the group’s order; the matter was closed.

This was plenty to prick Zeigarnik’s interest and she conducted Laboratory tests; these confirmed the waiter’s experience.  He could recall the orders while they were in process but once finished with the information became harder to recall.


In action today

Today many restaurants operate a system where the waiter does not carry an order pad.  As a former hotel manager, this would terrify me; in my day the slips of paper were part of a system that tracked food service.  There are some great techniques for short-term memory recall; usually up to about seven blocks of detail but there must be a computer system keeping track for the kitchen.

There are other places where we see this effect of unfinished business staying in mind; here are some examples.

  • Soap opera cliffhangers
  • Inability to recall a person’s name
  • Planning a project
  • Health Concerns

With the loop left open your mind stays active on the subject, you need to, for example, see the next soap instalment.  The difference with these is that some are useful and others are not.


Potential Downsides

Having things on your mind can become a major issue, your general function can be slowed and lead to health issues.  Soap opera cliffhangers are for the average viewer easily pushed to one side when something more important comes along; the wait for the next episode is fairly short.

The inability to recall a person’s name is annoying, you can picture their face and even their cat’s name but their name, it’s a blank.  A couple of hours go by and you wonder why Kate pops into your mind; your subconscious, like a dog with a bone, kept working until the information was served up.  Short term frustration resolved by your relentless mind.

Planning a project, perhaps a house extension or holiday has many factors.  Once you open the file in your head this can take over a large chunk of prime processing real estate.  These kinds of big plans can be constantly waiting to jump into your conscious thoughts and take over when your concentration should be pointed elsewhere.  This is an example of where a good strategy would help to keep the mind more focused on the here now.  Avoiding the potential for unwanted distractions and stresses.

Health concerns are a big issue for many people, thoughts can run away and even when focussed on another subject spring back into even more vivid realities.  With ever better access to information (some poor), it is easy to imagine the worse case situation, the mind will then continue to work on these.

These few examples briefly explore the downsides of our subconscious continuing to work on areas without closure.  The process of overthinking can be damaging, be sure you are working with good information.


How I use the Zeigarnik Effect

Long before I had heard the name Bluma Zeigarnik I was tapping into the process she had seen at work in the coffee house; as were several others I knew.  To me what I was doing was good planning, with good results little did I know more was in play.  Here is the process I followed while at university when an essay title was issued.

  • Go to Library and photocopy all relevant text
  • Print relevant articles from the internet.  This was feasible in the 90’s
  • Read the printed and photocopied material
  • Draft a synopsis in my head
  • Place all info in pile and got to the pub.

With essay titles being issued weeks or months before submission date it could be quite awhile until I looked at the information again.  Usually about a week before the deadline.  At which time the essay would fairly easily form into sections.  Left again for a day or so and with my mind (conscious) occupied with other things, when I returned constructing the final draft always flowed.  Sometimes not as quickly as I would have liked, but consistently.

There are other ways that I have used the system since, and I have taught this system to many people.  A keen ‘Do It Yourselfer’ who had always needed to adapt plans along the way became proficient at better planning.  No more last minute dashes to the shops for supplies as his projects flowed on to impressively better standards.


How to use the Zeigarnik Effect

With a small amount of adjustment, the system has value in most anything where some planning and evaluation is required.  The key points to follow are.

  1. Get started in time – your subconscious needs time to work
  2. If there is a final design set in stone become very familiar with it (the Goal)*
  3. Read/View as much good information as is practical; keep it relevant
  4. Direct your conscious attention elsewhere for a couple of days
  5. Make an interim draft – get an idea of end product or route to it*
  6. Review draft – if possible get a firm view of end product or route to it*
  7. Let the final production commence

*at 2,5 and 6 above I have made allowances for the fact that the end product might already be set in stone; you may be a proficient goal setter.

So if you already know the end requirement why would this help?  Think about one of those puzzles where you have to move the tiles around to complete a picture or a Rubik’s cube.  In these situations the challenge is more the route than the end product and using this system is the equivalent of breaking the puzzle apart, throwing the pieces in the air and landing them in the correct places.


Hypnotherapy and the Zeigarnik Effect

In hypnotherapy, we are constantly tieing in with the principle discovered by Zeigarnik; sending the conscious mind off for a day trip and talking with the subconscious.  We seed the subconscious to find solutions, leaving the loop open for the subconscious to work on; sometimes allowing it to work between sessions.

Different therapists will talk about ‘Future Pacing’ or ‘Psuedo Orientation In Time’ (POIT) for the technique we use regards forward planning.  This technique tied in with various others enables us to employ resources for positive change work.



In this post, we have looked at how the subconscious mind works away in the background on unfinished business; the Zeigarnik effect.  And how to use the Zeigarnik Effect to help your productivity.  Noting also that there are some downsides to feeding the subconscious with potentially unhelpful information.

Knowing you can engage the mind in useful background tasks opens up new ways of working, it can be like walking in when half the work is done and claiming overall victory for the last stage.