How interrupting your tasks can boost your creativity.
Have you ever felt guilty about not finishing a task?
My parents used to tell me “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” (German: Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen.)
I grew up in the mindset believing anything that can be done today should be done today. Whenever I procrastinated on a thing, I felt bad.
But not finishing can be a good thing. Here’s a brief explanation of the Zeigarnik effect and four ways to reap the benefits in everyday life.
A brief explanation of the Zeigarnik effect
In the 1920s, soviet researcher Bluma Zeigarnik discovered people remember interrupted or uncompleted activities better than completed ones.
She observed the effect in waiters. They remembered orders only so long as the order was open and forgot it as soon as it was served.
As a scientist, Zeigarnik started experiments to test her observation. She asked probands to complete 15 to 22 tasks such as solving a puzzle, stringing beads, folding paper, or counting backward.
She let half of the participants complete all of their tasks while she interrupted the other half before they finished.
Zeigarnik then tested how many unfinished tasks the participants would remember. The experiment’s results were significant. Participants were twice as likely to remember incomplete tasks than complete ones.
You likely know this effect from earworms. When you stop listening to a song halfway through, your brain will start the song repeatedly to complete it. The music will be stuck in your head.
The Zeigarnik effect has also been explored more recently by two researchers from Florida State University. Baumeister and Masicampo discovered people did worse on a task when they were interrupted finishing a warm-up activity — because it is still stuck in their working memory.
How to use the Zeigarnik effect for you
Luckily, the Zeigarnik effect also comes with upsides. You can use it to improve your creativity, memory, and much more.
1) Better recall through interleaving
Learning scientists agree unfinished things stay longer in your memory. If you interrupt a learning session and resume later, you’ll likely remember more of the content.
Researchers call this learning strategy interleaving: “In interleaving, you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete. If learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically over time, they remember it better.”
So the next time you’re trying to remember information, schedule strategic breaks in the middle of your learning session.
2) Boost your creativity with this trick
Creativity doesn’t work with willpower. You can’t sit down and force your best ideas to come to your consciousness. Creativity works better in your brain’s diffused mode.
This mode feels like daydreaming and enables new neural connections. When you let your mind wander without actively thinking about the problem, you likely come up with a solution you hadn’t thought about.
Adam Grant writes in his book Originals: “When you’re generating new ideas, deliberately stop when your progress is incomplete. By taking a break in the middle of the process, you’re more likely to engage in divergent thinking and give ideas time to incubate.”
The Zeigarnik effect can help unlock your best ideas. Start thinking about a topic or an unsolved problem. Write the question down and bring it to your mind. But then, do something unrelated where you can let your mind wander, e.g., washing the dishes, cleaning the apartment, going for a phone-free walk.
“These were all situations which occurred to me-while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk and which I eventually turned into books.”
— Steven King
3) Get people’s attention with cliffhangers
Ever binge-watched a series? Likely, every episode finished unfinished with a story thread that hadn’t been resolved.
But even if you don’t write a playscript, you can increase people’s interest with informational teasers.
When you give presentations, for example, the Zeigarnik effect can help you retain your audience’s attention. Tease a piece of important information early on, but don’t reveal it until the end.
The next time you feel guilty about not finishing a task, remember the Zeigarnik effect — a strategic break can actually help you be more creative, improve your recall, or get people’s attention.
Want to feel inspired and improve your learning?
Subscribe free to The Learn Letter. I read a book and 50 articles a week, and each Wednesday, you’ll receive the best in your inbox. This newsletter will make you find tools and resources that help you on your path to health, wealth, and wisdom.