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.


Conversely, we can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our mind. We can ruminate about them, even when we do something that has nothing to do with work and ideally does not require our full attention

How to Take Smart Notes

There is a well-known phenomenon known to psychologists by the forbidding name of the Zeigarnik Effect. In brief, tasks that are interrupted are much more likely to be remembered (...) The effect holds only if the tasks that the subject has been set are ones that have a structure-a beginning, a plan, and a terminus. If the tasks are "silly" in the sense of being meaningless, arbitrary, and without visible means for checking progress, the drive to completion is not stimulated by interruption. It seems likely that the desire to achieve competence follows the same rule. Unless there is some meaningful unity in what we are doing and some way of telling how we are doing, we are not very likely to strive to excel ourselves.

Toward a Theory of Instruction - Jerome Bruner

  • Bruner argues that Zeigarnik Effect doesn't work just for any task - excellence comes from Deliberate Practice, and this form of work needs a specific goal, and clear feedback into how we are doing

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.