Zeigarnik Effect

  • tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete
  • can be used two ways:
    • to stop thinking about something - make a note about that thing
    • to not stop thinking about something - leave it unfinished and let subconscious take over
  • possible usecase:
    • leave simple bug to fix so next coding session can be resumed easily
  • related to Self-Cybernetics concepts

One research study asked students to think about an important exam. Half of the students were asked to put in writing specific plans of what/where/when they would study. Later, all students were asked to do a word association test. The group of students that did not write any study plans produced more word associations related to studying because studying was still on their mind; the group who did write down their study plans did not exhibit a comparable bias during the word association test.


If you are planning something important, preparing a presentation, or even writing fiction you can use the Zeigarnik Effect by stopping writing in the middle of an idea or passage. That way it will play on the mind, in a pleasant and creative way, and it will be much easier to resume writing next time.


Use the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage. If you want something to stop intruding your mind, write it down and promise yourself that you'll "deal with it later". If you want to keep pondering something (perhaps a problem you want to solve), don't write it down, and go for a walk with that problem on your mind.


This process leaves a visible trail of what I actually did on a given project, which makes it so much easier to get back to things after a break. It also helps fight against Zeigarnik effect I don't have to keep thinking about things once I wrote them down.

Szymon Kaliski © 2021