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Zeigarnik Effect

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s mentor told her that he noticed restaurant servers easily recalled incomplete orders but could not easily recall completed and paid orders1. She did more research into this phenomenon now known as the Zeigarnik Effect. In her study she presented subjects with puzzles; half of the subjects’ task to finish the puzzles were interrupted. She found that the subjects “were twice as likely to recall details of the interrupted tasks, whether these were ultimately completed or not.” The idea is that a task interrupted stays fresher in the memory than a task not interrupted. This would suggest that taking little study interruptions (breaks) actually freshens the content in the mind. An important tip to remember for all those #studygrams.

What interests me about the Zeigarnik Effect isn’t so much that the interruption of tasks causes greater memory retention, but rather that tasks uninterrupted and completed are easily forgotten. As a #planneraddict I pride myself on To Do lists, but I know I do a lot more than what is on that list—my list might say “Clean Up” which in itself contains 20 completed tasks. Heck if I remember what they were once I’m done! The same goes for my professional work. When it comes around to evaluation time, remembering all the DONE things can be rough when our mind is geared to remember all the things interrupted and/or incomplete. What a harsh cycle.

This is why I advocate strongly for not only making TO DO lists, but also DONE lists. Much of the time we make a nice plan for our day in the form of a To Do list or bullets or what have you, but our days sway off path. We might wind up not getting our To Dos done, but that doesn’t mean we did nothing! For those days where the road curves, keep track of all the tasks that did get done, even if they were unexpected. I actually use a different type of bullet for Done But Not Planned tasks. I also keep an electronic document of how my work days run complete with time stamps and how tasks made me feel. I think that will help inform my self-evaluation later, and it helps me reflect on what I really love about my work.

There might be nothing quite like striking out a To Do list item, but getting to write in whole new lists of Done items feels pretty darn good too.


  2. Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book by Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc. 2012 accessed through Credo
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Hidden Costs of Rewards

If a person believes their task is to solve a problem, they will work at the task until the problem is really solved.

If a person believes the end of the task will result in a reward, they will only work at the task until the reward is obtained.

These are the realities of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivations1. The last example was a bit vague, but let’s talk now about deadlines. Writers, whether in a college class or professionally engaged, have deadlines. It is often that deadline that puts a stop to the writing (extrinsic) rather than some actual feeling of completion (intrinsic). For many writers, they will turn in the manuscript to their teacher or their editor or whomever, but they won’t feel finished. They know it could be better; some improvements could have been made. Yet, after receiving the grade or being paid the sum, they often do not return to the writing.

Lepper and Greene2 did a study on this with children to see if rewards for work in classrooms was a good idea. They found that children who knew they would get a reward for their work tended to “produce more, but necessarily less detailed” work. Children that never expected an award remained engaged in the activity longer and created better work.

I wonder how this may come into play with to do lists, as often found in The Bullet Journal system. I’ve always found it interesting that Ryder Carroll (BuJo inventor) suggests merely placing an X over the bullet for tasks completed, rather than striking out the task. Me, I find great pleasure in striking out my completed tasks. Blog Post. This “extrinsic” motivator can definitely get me moving, but I don’t feel it necessarily affects how well I do that task. I wonder if that’s because my “intrinsic” motivators—wanting to do a good job for the sake of doing a good job—is stronger than any external reward. Yes, striking out a To Do list item feels great but only if I know I did a good job. I’ve even witnessed people putting check marks next to tasks they’ve not done yet! Oh the sacrilege!

For you, how does Striking Out or checking off or Xing a To Do list item feel? Is that striking out a lead motivator for completing the task? Have you ever checked off an item, knowing you’d not done your best?


  1. McGraw, K. O., & Fiala, J. (1982). Undermining the Zeigarnik effect: Another hidden cost of reward. Journal Of Personality, 50(1), 58. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.ep7380376
  2. Greene, D., & Lepper, M. R. (1974). Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Children’s Subsequent Intrinsic Interest. Child Development, 45(4), 1141-1145. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.ep12117087
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Cognitive Writing Processes

John R. Hayes and Linda S. Flower of Carnergie-Mellon University wrote about “a cognitive-process theory of writing” in their 1981 book chapter “Uncovering Cognitive Processes in Writing: An Introduction to Protocol Analysis.” The article is really about writing in the sense of research, but to start the chapter they explain how “people behave as they write” which is really interesting to anyone that chooses to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). They claim four features of writing to be discussed:

1 “writing consists of distinct processes”

2 “writing processes are highly embedded”

3 “writing is goal directed”

4 “writing stimulates the discovery of new goals”

The processes of writing are so complex they were given a sort of flow chart (see below).

You can see three major areas here:

1 Task Environment: everything outside the writer, including the reason for writing (whatever the exterior reason, it is internalized and “what finally matters will be the problem the writers represent to themselves”).

2 Long Term Memory: this isn’t just everything the writer knows about the topic, but also everything she knows about writing too and of course choices are made about what to recall

3 The Writing Processes:

  • The Planning part is “the whole range of thinking activities that are required before we can put words on paper.”
  • Then Translating that mental activity to written words happens. That Translation process often forces writers back to the planning phase as problems or needed clarifications arise.
  • Finally Reviewing is seeing what has been written, and this too often leads back to planning—Reviewing can be by choice at the end or mid word and done self-consciously.
  • Looming above the writing processes is the Monitor which is “the executive” decision maker “that determines when to switch from one writing process to another.” The Monitor makes various types of executive decisions based on the Task Environment and Long Term memory.


The important thing to keep in mind here is this: there is no sequence of Plan-Translate-Review. All three of the processes are “embedded” and can be used at any moment dependent on demands the Monitor determines. For instance, a short sticky note to a co-worker requires little planning, and we might jump straight to translate, whereas a ten page paper for class or a report to the boss requires more planning. This is key—there is no one path to writing, hence why the authors here chose to use a sort of flow chart to represent it.

Moving on from the distinct yet embedded processes, the chapter turns toward Goals. There are obvious Goals to fulfill—Who is the audience? What is my assignment or reason to write? But there are also “more local goals and plans that guide the act of writing.” This has a lot to do with the “ability of the writer” which ties back into Long Term Memory.

Finally (and what really caught my eye) is the idea that “writing stimulates the discovery of new goals.” A writer may begin with an objective, but midway through the embedded processes there could be “a radical redirection of the writer’s efforts.” These realizations in writing seem to be tied to a writer’s experience with prior writing, and are often “welcome but unexpected.”

So what does this all have to do with Reflection Journals by Emily Bufford? It’s really the last part I want to discuss. It’s important to write, to go through these cognitive (and tough!) processes. It keeps our brains sharp, and more importantly it can reveal new goals to us. What may have started as a written diatribe about a co-worker’s bad habits could turn into a reflection on our own habits at work and how to improve ourselves there which could lead to thinking about starting an exercise routine to better our health and happiness. That’s the point—writing is about self discovery! All of us wonder and chew on our thoughts, but the act of writing (pen to paper, or fingers to key board) actually reveals more to us than simply mentally spinning. That’s why I think it’s important to ‘take time each day to reflect.’ And I’d say Hayes and Flower have proven why it’s important to reflect in writing each day.


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Research First, Short Article Later

I’m going to do some research and then write up a short article about the Zeigarnik effect and how it may incorporate into your journaling. Basically, it’s this: a person will remember incomplete tasks better than completed tasks. I’ll connect all the dots later.

Oh yeah, welcome to my page!! The journal pictured below will be given away very soon on my Instagram. Please watch that space for more!