The Zeigarnik Effect: Drive to Finish and Need for Closure– Business, Marketing… Spielberg, Lucas, Rowling…

It wants to be finished… subconsciously remembering that the tasks was never finished… the desire of our minds to end uncertainty and resolve unfinished business… it’s ‘need for closure’– The Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect is about the human tendency to remember uncompleted tasks more than the tasks already completed. When people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it. What the Zeigarnik Effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting– something, sometime, somewhere… anything. Don’t start with the hard task, try something easy first. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to complete the task.

The Zeigarnik Effect is named after the Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik (1926), who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served, but little recollection of the completed orders.

Zeigarnik went back to her lab to test out a theory about what was going on with  waiter. More than fifty years after Bluma Zeigarnik  study, Kenneth McGraw and his team returned to conduct the same study. The conclusion in both studies was that once people start something, they are more inclined to finish it. There is, however, one exception to the Zeigarnik Effect; it won’t work unless you are actually motivated to complete the task or achieve the goal. The Zeigarnik Effect says our brains hold-on to unfinished tasks; in other words, we like to finish what we start.

Here is what Wiseman says about the research: Procrastinators frequently put off starting activities because they are overwhelmed by the task in front of them. However, if they can be persuaded, or can persuade themselves, to work on the activity for ‘just a few minutes,’ they often feel an urge to see it through to completion.

Research shows that the ‘just a few minutes’ rule is a highly effective way of beating procrastination and could help people finish the most arduous of tasks. It is also a perfect application of Zeigarnik’s work – those few minutes of initial activity create an anxious brain that refuses to rest until the job is finished.  

Zeigarnik ascribed their results to a ‘state of tension’, akin to a cliffhanger ending: Your mind wants to know what comes next. It wants to finish. Psychologist Arie Kruglanski calls this a ‘need for closure’, a desire of our minds to end the states of uncertainty and resolve unfinished business…

In the article What Can Zeigarnik Teach About Productivity? by TimoK writes: This  ground-breaking theory states: people tend to remember incomplete things better than things which are completed. You may recognize this effect in your everyday life. If there is a task or anything else that is not finished, it keeps popping up in your mind – until it’s done.

The issue with too many unfinished tasks is that your brain keeps processing them– whether you are aware of it or not. But as soon as the work is completed your brain capacity can be freed up for something else. The best way to handle this situation is to organize your working methods. In order to take advantage of the Zeigarnik Effect, do the following things:

  • Define your ‘why’: It all starts by defining your ‘why’: What is the ultimate goal you are trying to reach?
  • Apply the right strategies: Once you know your goal, then apply the right strategies.
  • Clean your task list: Evaluate each task: Is this task contributing to my goals? If the answer is no, then you know it’s time to let go of that task.
  • Know your optimum working times: Once you have the important tasks on your list      and you want to finish them, figure out your optimum working times.
  • Do it at once – with breaks: Once you get to work, try to get as much done at once as possible– with some proper breaks (use walk away time).
  • Pick the right environment:  Find the optimum place for work, so that distractions (phone, e-mail…) are minimal.

In the article The Zeigarnik Effect by writes:  One of the oldest tricks in the  television business for keeping viewers tuned-in and returning, to a serial program, week-after-week is the– cliffhanger. Then, there are those fateful words: ‘to be continued…’ So, you must tune in next week for the resolution, because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.

The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same technique. Many of his works, like ‘Oliver Twist’, although later published as complete novels, were originally serialized. His cliffhangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that they would anxiously wait for the next installment…  What these examples have in common is that when people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it.

Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our tasks. Although, Zeigarnik Effect has an important exception; it doesn’t work, when we’re not particularly motivated to achieve the goal, or don’t expect to do well.

This exception is true of goals in general: when they’re unattractive or impossible we don’t bother with them. But when we value the goal and think that there are possible, then taking the first step is the difference between success and failure.

In the article Zeigarnik Effect explains…Why by Mindhacks writes: Bluma Zeigarnik was a student of one of the proponents of so-called Gestalt Psychology, Kurt Lewin, and this school of psychological thought that first brought up the issues of foreground/ background awareness and perceptual processing. But, how does this all relate to business and questions of unfinished marketing headlines, email subject line, stories, videos, books, blogs…?

You may have heard a professional public speaker use a technique called ‘opening up a metaphor’, which simply means the speaker usually begins their presentation with an introductory and engaging story. Then, cuts-off (unfinished) at 80-90% story completion, ideally (the cut-off is done) at point of maximum suspense. Why? It keeps the audience’s minds open and alert, carefully listening for when the speaker will finish that last missing bit of information on ‘how the story ends’.

In the process, the audience is more attentive to the speaker’s presentation, which is exactly speaker’s intention and purpose of the ploy. However, downside of this technique is that the audience might have a strong response to the ploy (unfinished story) and they may actually begin clamoring to hear the end of the story; in fact, yelling: Hey, you didn’t finish the story! It turns out the strength of response or Zeigarnik Effect is strongly correlated to Myers-Briggs personality dimension– Judger/ Perceiver: 

More you tend toward the Judger end of the spectrum, the higher is perceived  ‘need for closure’ for having the story finished. Conversely, if you tend toward Perceiver end, you may notice that something was left unfinished, but you may not really care that much; there is no real ‘need for closure’. Luckily for public speakers, most people fall somewhere in between two extremes. Now… applying the Zeigarnik Effect to this piece, the writer says; well folks… ‘to be continued’… Some marketing gurus call this Zeigarnik Effect the ‘most hypnotic’ marketing technique ever.

The Zeigarnik Effect is applied in many very interesting ways, in the world, all around us. Television serials use this all the time, the unresolved ending that makes you want to come back every week for more… The human mind is motivated towards and likes closure and because people tend to remember unfinished or unresolved things much more than things that have been completed.

According to Issamar Ginzberg: One of the most powerful things that writers and many other types of businesses can do to increase sales is simply to add the words ‘volume one’ to the book or product – because humans, by nature, love to collect things, and when you have ‘volume one’ of a series and then you want ‘volume two’; the hoarders and collector mentality wakes up and wants you to have the complete set. This is also why newspaper articles often finish on another page – to get you to find the ending; and by looking for the ending, you page through the paper, coincidentally, looking at other stories and ads.

That’s why in many publications there is a little black box or logo at the end of each article. This lets your brain know it’s done with this information and can move on. We don’t like things just hanging around; we want things to be brought to completion. Once things are completed, we can safely forget about them…

Author and psychologist Buffington described the Zeigarnik Effect by stating that people tend to remember negative experiences and feelings longer than positive ones. Moreover, people also feel a greater level of impact from negative messages than positive ones. These results suggest that tasks tend to be forgotten or not remembered because the motivation to perform them is fully satisfied.

Thus, there appears to be little motivation to recall tasks that are finished, while there’s a strong investment of interest in unfinished tasks that continually refresh the memory. Creating closure and completion can become a major avenue for significantly lowering your stress levels and accomplishing more…

However, you can outsmart your brain and save yourself a lot of trouble just by remembering these two principles: 1. Start a task and you are more likely to finish it. 2. Once you finished a task, you are more likely to lose interested in it.