The Zeigarnik Effect and GTDAUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
One day in 1927 Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian student of psychology at the University of Berlin, went along with several classmates and teachers to have dinner at a restaurant in town. When the waiter who served them took the order of all the diners with absolutely nothing to write in, as he did with the rest of the tables, she thought it was going to end badly. However, after a while the waiter served everyone exactly what they ordered.
Once they left the restaurant, Bluma Zeigarnik realized she had forgotten the scarf inside. So she went back inside and asked the waiter with the amazing memory if he had seen it. The waiter didn’t remember her, much less he remembered where she had sat. “How is it possible that you do not remember me with such a good memory?” asked Bluma. “I just keep the orders in my mind until they are served,” replied the waiter.
Zeigarnik decided to study this strange behavior. Along with her mentor Kurt Lewing, she made a series of experiments that showed that we all function more or less like that waiter. Our brain retains the unfinished tasks that are constantly drawing the attention of our consciousness, and when we finish them, the brain eliminates them. This has been called the Zeigarnik effect.
This effect is used in many fields, from productivity to marketing and advertising. For example, the Zeigarnik effect is used in television shows to keep your desire to see the next episode (several arguments are kept open so that they stay in your brain after you see the “to be continued” label.) It’s also the reason a video game in which you have to complete multiple missions gets you totally hooked.
Further experiments have shown that this isn’t exactly true. There are people who are capable of carrying multiple projects at once, keeping a cold head and not showing any signs of stress. This wouldn’t be possible if our brain only relaxed when the task is complete. Recent studies have shown that outstanding tasks steal the attention of our brains until we have a clear idea of what we are going to do with them.
This partly explains why the GTD method, implemented properly, allows us to be productive in a more relaxed manner. The first two stages of the GTD work flow, capture and clarify, are clearly aim at eliminating that uncertainty which, after all, is what causes stress.
By the time we capture what reaches our head in a safe place, we achieve a sense of completion. Even though the task isn’t finished, we know that we have done what could be accomplished up to this moment, which is to write it down so that it isn’t forgotten. We will decide later what to do, if we need to do something.
Later, when we process everything that we have captured and clarify what it means and what we are going to do with it, we again get that feeling of completion, because we already have our plan of action. Having a lot of pending tasks is not what troubles us. The anxiety is caused by having a lot of undefined things in our head.