Could the Zeigarnik Effect Be Sapping Your Energy?

I’ve always been fascinated with the expeditors in busy restaurants. When I worked in commercial kitchens 40 years ago, we called them wheel men. They stood at a wheel with clips on it. A server would clip the dining party’s order to the wheel on his or her side of the counter and spin it around so the wheel man could reach it. This individual would then order the food. When the dishes came up, they would be placed on the counter and the server would be called. Software has now replaced the wheel, of course. Instead, a machine spits out a ticket onto the counter. But the rest of the principle is the same.

If you take a step back, though, you’ll realize that the entire job consists of one incomplete task after another. The expeditor orders food and then puts that ticket in the back of his or her mind until the food comes up. At that point, it has to be recalled and assembled accurately, all within a minute or two. It can be overwhelming. I’ve been there. That said, I’ve watched seasoned expeditors manage as many as 15 orders at the same time during a dinner rush. Eventually, all the tasks are completed and everyone receives their food.

All of this takes us to the Zeigarnik Effect. Named after researcher Bluma Zeigarnik, the theory holds that an interrupted activity may be more readily recalled. As a result, people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. For positions such as expeditor and air traffic controller, the brain’s ability to do this is an advantage.

But most of us don’t run a kitchen or direct air traffic. As a result, the Zeigarnik Effect can sap our energy and focus. Why? Because the brain keeps reminding us of tasks we have not completed. This adds to the cognitive load we are already managing and depletes the blood glucose our brain needs to focus.

Imagine working on a project and continually being reminded of other little tasks that still need to be done. You may be living this every day. Most of us do. Every time the thought of one of these tasks is triggered by something in the environment, we waste some of the sugar energy we could have used for focusing on present activities. On a hectic day, with lots of these distractions, this can leave us exhausted, but without a sense of completion. Maddening isn’t it?

So how can you manage this effect and conserve your energy? The easiest thing to do is compartmentalize these tasks by recording them on a separate list. This could be something as easy as maintaining a pad and pen next to your focused work. When one of these distractions comes to mind, jot it down and then forget it. The brain perceives that as a signal of completion and will stop reminding you to do it. When you reach a point where you can complete the tasks on this list, take a few minutes and punch them out. I have been doing this for years and this one little practice measurably improves my productivity and focus.

This is not rocket science, but it’s how top ten thinkers are able to remain focused on important activities. How about you?

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