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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