The psychology of unfinished tasks

Unfinished tasks can feel overwhelming, leading to procrastination and slowing your progress. On the other hand, the annoyance of having all of these unfinished tasks on your to-do list may motivate you to tackle them at the next opportunity. These contradictory experiences are due to two effects: the Zeigarnik effect and the Ovsiankina effect.

A productive psychological tension

In 1927, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik reported that individuals tend to have a better memory for tasks that are interrupted or incomplete, than they do for tasks that have been completed.

Zeigarnik and her supervisor, professor Kurt Lewin, observed that their restaurant waiter had an exceptional memory for what everyone at the table had ordered, despite never writing anything down.

However, it later emerged that he only retained the information until each table left. After this, he would have little or no memory of the customers, which table they had been sat at, or what they had ordered.

Following this encounter, Zeigarnik carried out a series of experiments on the relationship between tasks and memory. She concluded that it’s possible for the human memory to distinguish between tasks that have been completed and those that are still left to complete, and that we tend to remember unfinished tasks better. This phenomenon became known as the Zeigarnik effect.

According to Zeigarnik’s research, an unfinished task will remain prominent in our minds because we know that we have left it incomplete. Zeigarnik explained that each task we start produces a form of psychological tension.

If we’re interrupted partway through the task by a phone call or meeting, the tension of the task remains prominent in our minds. This means that when we return to it, the information is still present. The psychological tension, and our recall of relevant information, will therefore only fade once the task is completed.

One of Zeigarnik’s colleagues, Maria Ovsiankina, investigated the impact of interruptions on productivity. In 1928, Ovsiankina found that, compared to a task that has not yet been started, individuals have a stronger urge to complete interrupted or unfinished assignments.

The Ovsiankina effect describes a state in which not completing a task leads to intrusive thoughts, creating a strong desire to complete the brief. This means that starting a project may increase your desire to finish it, because procrastinating and leaving it unfinished feels unpleasant. 

Ovsiankina therefore showed that even if you know you don’t have time to complete something all at once, it may still be worth making a start. Once a project is underway, your dedication to completing it will increase.

Using unfinished tasks as a productivity tool

By supporting our short-term memory and encouraging completion of an activity, unfinished tasks can be useful as a productivity tool. However, it only works if you don’t leave tasks hanging over you for too long.

For instance, the Zeigarnik effect can subject us to the “Tyranny of the Shoulds”, as described by psychotherapist Karen Horney, in which we compare who we are (the real self) with who we feel we should be (the ideal self). If we leave tasks unfinished for too long, the resultant rumination or anxiety can impact our self-esteem.

The Ovsiankina effect can also lead to a “quasi-need”, or a need that is not essential but nevertheless pulls our attention. Psychologists Oliver Weigelt and Christine Syrek discovered that leaving assignments unfinished over the weekend causes people to ruminate on the unfinished tasks, which leads to difficulty switching off from work.

The researchers found that spending a little time over the weekend finishing tasks or preparing for the following week could prevent rumination and stress. Describing it as “closure”, they noted that ticking a task off the list then made it easier for people to enjoy their remaining time off.

Although there are drawbacks associated with unfinished tasks, they can be used to boost memory and encourage task completion. The following steps will help you develop a strategy for using unfinished tasks to your advantage:

  1. Start even if you can’t finish. It may feel more productive to wait until you have enough time to complete a task in its entirety. However, the psychology of unfinished tasks suggests that it’s better to start working on a task, even if you can’t finish it in one go. Once started, you will feel more inclined to finish the job at the earliest opportunity.
  2. Follow the ten minute rule. Fight procrastination by talking yourself into getting started with the ten minute rule. There’s a good chance that once you get started, you’ll keep going for longer than ten minutes. And even if you don’t, the combined power of the Zeigarnik effect and the Ovsiankina effect will make it more likely you will finish the task later.
  3. Take breaks. Taking breaks helps restore your motivation, prevent decision fatigue, consolidate your memories, increase your creativity, and improve your well-being. In addition, the Zeigarnik effect shows that your mind will naturally work to retain information when you take regular breaks, therefore boosting your productivity. And when a task is left unfinished, the Ovsiankina effect will draw you back to ensure you finish the job.
  4. Critically appraise your tasks. If you notice that despite applying these strategies you still have tasks that are left unfinished for too long, consider whether these tasks are a priority. Use the Eisenhower matrix or the MoSCoW method of prioritisation to delete or delegate some of these tasks.
  5. Practise self-compassion. The downside of the Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects is that an unfinished task can cause stress and anxiety through intrusive thoughts. Don’t beat yourself up when you have a long list of unfinished tasks. Instead, be kind to yourself and practice mindfulness through journaling, meditation, and exercise.

The Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects can be useful productivity tools. Rather than procrastinating or leaving tasks incomplete, these effects encourage us to pick up unfinished tasks.

However, when not managed correctly, these psychological phenomena can lead to cognitive dissonance and intrusive thoughts. Apply a strategic approach to your unfinished tasks and don’t forget to practice self-care, so you can make the most of the Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects without sacrificing your mental health.

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