How to Get Rid of the Burden of Unfinished Tasks

Tame the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik effect refers to the tendency to remember unfinished tasks and strive to complete them, in contrast to finished ones which we forget easily. At first glance it seems quite convenient — thanks to this built-in "reminder" in our heads, we retain our current duties in memory. But in fact, the Zeigarnik effect can cause a lot of problems if you don’t keep it under control. In this article, we will tell you how to tame the Zeigarnik effect and turn it to your advantage.
Unconscious aversion to incompleteness is the basis of the Zeigarnik effect. Our brain is literally uncomfortable with tasks left hanging in the air or interrupted work. "It's great to complete tasks! How nice that my brain is trying to help me with that," you may think. It’s not quite right, though. Our brain truly does its best — you know the rest.
Such incomplete tasks stick in your head and put you under pressure, eating up your valuable resource of attention and concentration. You prioritize each errand, trying to finish everything at once. Thus, you end up with a chorus of tasks in your head, each one screaming and highlighting its significance. Imagine that you are working in a room full of extremely annoying people, and they all want something from you at once and urgently. Such a situation is not conducive to productivity.

It would be logical to take a break, but it doesn’t help, either. The process is unconscious, you cannot turn it off with willpower. You may lie in the bathtub after a working day, for example, categorically ignoring all your thoughts about the reports and deadlines, but these thoughts are going to distract you anyway. People often don’t even realize that they are thinking about work, but only feel an unreasonable inner tension.

How to Get the Zeigarnik Effect Under Control

The good news is that you don’t have to become a workaholic to quiet your brain. On the contrary — the more you multitask, the less concentration and energy you have left.

The difference of concepts is the key to your way out of the vicious circle of the Zeigarnik effect. Your brain defines the word "complete" differently than you do. There is no need to accomplish everything to free up your working memory. It’s enough to unload the tasks — consider how and when you are going to get the job done. It’s important to sort things out, not to carry them through.
Let’s look at an example. You have some errands to run: prepare a monthly report, interview a client, make a presentation. Each task itself consists of smaller steps — settle on a date, make a draft, prepare questions, upload data, etc. If you don’t write out your to-dos, they keep circling your thoughts, making you multitask. It is impossible to do everything in a day, you understand that, but after work you barely can relax.

How to make life easier?
1. Write out all the tasks and break them down into steps
Do not strive for perfection at this stage — the main thing is to unload the set of tasks to an external drive, it’s okay if you miss something.
Enter everything, that has piled up, in the Inbox section in the app, and then break it down into smaller tasks
2. Highlight those tasks and subtasks that depend on other people
For instance, it is impossible to conduct an interview without a client. However, you cannot predict plans and actions of the other person. Therefore, your brain can "freeze" on the effect of incompleteness.

It’s crucial not to take responsibility for things that are not up to you. The client may suddenly go on vacation, and your coworker may postpone checking the presentation. Set the task in terms of your responsibility.

Instead of "conduct an interview with N," it’s better to aim for "settle on a time," "inform N on the interview."
Set tasks within your capabilities
When you perform a task defined so, the brain marks it done — you have completed your half, the other one is beyond your responsibilities.
3. Set a deadline for each task
Deadlines defeat the Zeigarnik effect. As soon as you set a specific deadline for an item, it immediately goes into the category of ones that have already been taken care of. The brain has no point in bothering you constantly with the tasks which have their own time slots. Due dates can be adjusted — in this case you set them for yourself, not for others. Your objective is to allocate time to specific work, not necessarily to finish it right away. Avoid situations when all the small and large tasks are schedule for the same day. Such planning causes anxiety and stress.
4. Set reminders for important deadlines
Trying to keep all the immediate deadline in mind takes up too much of your working memory. Shuffle off the burden on the planners — set a deadline and a reminder (or several, if you want to make assurance double sure).
5. Take stock of your daily work
At the end of your working day, summarize which tasks you have managed to accomplish (check the checkboxes) and which ones are left for the next days. If you missed the deadline, set another one. This time make it suitable. The objective is never leave to-dos in limbo.
Отмечаем сделанное и думаем, куда перенести незаконченные задачи

Useful tips for taming the Zeigarnik effect

  • Get the tasks out of your head as soon as they appear. Even if you don’t have time yet to set a deadline and assign subtasks.
  • Set a timer for the tasks. The Zeigarnik effect can bog you down in the details, especially if you are prone to perfectionism.
Built-in Pomodoro timer in SingularityApp keeps you away from getting stuck on one task
  • Keep a list of easy and quick to-dos. Devote a common time slot to crack simple tasks one by one. A five-minute task can sometimes distract you throughout the day if you let it roll around in your mind.
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