The Zeigarnik Effect: A Simple Way To Beat Procrastination

The Zeigarnik effect is the psychological finding that people remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones.

The Zeigarnik effect is the psychological finding that people remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones.

The definition of the Zeigarnik effect is that people remember unfinished tasks or activities better than those that are finished.

When a task is finished or completed it tends to leave memory.

The Zeigarnik effect also provides a key to one of the simplest methods for beating procrastination.

The Zeigarnik effect was named after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna.

Example of the Zeigarnik effect

What she noticed was that the waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served.

When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on.

She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927).

Except some of the time they were interrupted half way through the task.

Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing.

People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed.

What does this have to do with procrastination? I’ll give you another clue…

Almost sixty years later Kenneth McGraw and colleagues carried out another test of the Zeigarnik effect (McGraw et al., 1982).

In it participants had to do a really tricky puzzle; except they were interrupted before any of them could solve it and told the study was over.

Despite this nearly 90 percent carried on working on the puzzle anyway.

Another Zeigarnik effect example

One of the oldest tricks in the TV business for keeping viewers tuned in to a serial week after week is the cliffhanger.

The hero seems to have fallen off a mountain but the shot cuts away before you can be sure.

And then those fateful words: “TO BE CONTINUED…”

Literally a cliffhanger.

You 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 serialised.

His cliff-hangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that his American readership would wait at New York docks for the latest instalment to arrive by ship from Britain.

They were that desperate to find out what happened next.

I’ve started so I’ll finish

What all these examples have in common is that when people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it.

Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid starting.

It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.

What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first.

If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow.

Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end.

It will niggle away in the back of your mind like a Lost cliff-hanger.

Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our projects.

The sense of foreboding can be a big contributor to procrastination.

When the Zeigarnik effect does not work

The Zeigarnik effect has an important exception.

It doesn’t work so well when we’re not particularly motivated to achieve our goal or don’t expect to do well.

This is true of goals in general: when they’re unattractive or impossible we don’t bother with them.

But if we value the goal and think it’s possible, just taking a first step could be the difference between failure and success.

This Diet Wipes Out Memory And Learning

Memory problems could be partly responsible for obesity among people consuming this diet.

Memory problems could be partly responsible for obesity among people consuming this diet.

A Western-style diet stops critical memory functions from working properly, a study finds.

People who habitually eat unhealthy foods showed slower learning and poorer memory.

A Western-style diet typically involves eating more red meats, junk foods and saturated fats and less fresh vegetables, grains and seafood.

The damage caused to memory may also be a cause of obesity.

For the study, people who typically ate a Western-style diet seemed not to ‘remember’ that they were full.

Even when they had just eaten, they were always ready to snack.

Dr Tuki Attuquayefio, the study’s first author, said:

“Even though they were full, they still wanted to eat the sweet and fatty junk food.

What was even more interesting was that this effect was strongly related to their performance on the learning and memory task, suggesting that there is a link between the two via the hippocampus.”

The hippocampus is an area of the brain critical to learning and memory.

Studies on animals have now shown that a high-fat and high-sugar diet causes problems with memory inhibition in the hippocampus.

Memory inhibition is our ability to block out memories that are no longer useful.

For example, when we are not hungry, it should be harder for us to think about food.

But, the Western-style diet causes problems with this.

So that even when people have just eaten, they are still attracted to tempting foods.

This creates a kind of vicious circle.

Unhealthy eating leads to poor memory, which also leads to more unhealthy eating.

Fortunately, animal studies also suggest that these memory and learning problems can be reversed relatively quickly.

The study was published in the journal Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition (Attuquayefio et al., 2016).

Everyday Memory Problems Can Be Countered With This Simple Strategy

The age at which people typically start to have problems remembering details.

The age at which people typically start to have problems remembering details.

People typically begin to have difficulties remembering details — like where they left the keys — in their 40s.

The cause, though, could be less about a decline in brain function, and more about a change in the way memories are formed and retrieved.

Research shows that older adults focus more on what is relevant to them, rather than paying attention to external details.

Focusing on external details could help promote healthy cognitive aging.

Dr Natasha Rajah, one of the study’s authors, said:

“This change in memory strategy with age may have detrimental effects on day-to-day functions that place emphasis on memory for details such as where you parked your car or when you took your prescriptions.”

People aged 19 to 76-years-old were shown a series of faces and had to recall where they appeared on the screen, while their brains were scanned.

The results showed that younger people really paid attention, with their visual cortices running on overdrive, Dr Rajah said:

“They are really paying attention to the perceptual details in order to make that decision.”

Older people, though, showed lower activation in the visual cortex.

Instead, their medial prefrontal cortices were more active.

This area is related to introspection and aspects of one’s own life.

Younger people performed better on the task — but the reason may be because of what older people choose to focus on.

Dr Rajah said:

“This may not be a ‘deficit’ in brain function per se, but reflects changes in what adults deem ‘important information’ as they age.”

Older people can learn to improve their memory by focusing on external details rather than internal information, Dr Rajah said:

“That may be why some research has suggested that mindfulness meditation is related to better cognitive aging.”

Hormonal influences are currently being tested as another explanation:

“At mid-life women are going through a lot of hormonal change.

So we’re wondering how much of these results is driven by post-menopausal women.”

The study was published in the journal NeuroImage (Ankudowich et al., 2016).

Memory Doubled By Playing These Sounds During Sleep

These sounds played during sleep can enhance both memory and sleep.

These sounds played during sleep can enhance both memory and sleep.

Sounds played during sleep can enhance memory and may even benefit sleep, research finds.

The sounds, though, need to be in sync with the brain’s natural oscillations to work.

In the study 11 people were played ‘pink noise’ while they slept.

This sounds like gentle hissing that goes up and down — much like the lapping of waves on the beach.

Here is some pink noise to try out:

Measuring the electrical activity in the brain, they were able to synchronise the sounds with people’s brain waves.

When synchronised, people were better able to remember a list of words they had previously learnt.

In fact, they remembered nearly twice as many words.

If the sounds were out of sync, though, the effect was not seen.

Dr. Jan Born, who led the study, said:

“The beauty lies in the simplicity to apply auditory stimulation at low intensities — an approach that is both practical and ethical, if compared for example with electrical stimulation — and therefore portrays a straightforward tool for clinical settings to enhance sleep rhythms.”

The researchers think that keeping the sounds in sync may also help people to sleep.

They observed that the brain waves related to sleep were stronger when the sounds were in sync.

Dr Born said:

“…it might be even used to enhance other brain rhythms with obvious functional significance — like rhythms that occur during wakefulness and are involved in the regulation of attention.”

The problem for the home experimenter, though, is that the sounds need to be in sync.

Dr Born said:

“Importantly, the sound stimulation is effective only when the sounds occur in synchrony with the ongoing slow oscillation rhythm during deep sleep.

We presented the acoustic stimuli whenever a slow oscillation “up state” was upcoming, and in this way we were able to strengthen the slow oscillation, showing higher amplitude and occurring for longer periods.”

The study was published in the journal Neuron (Ngo et al., 2013).

A Better Way To Cope With Persistent Bad Memories (M)

Context over emotion: a technique that holds promise for those experiencing disturbing emotional flashbacks.

Context over emotion: a technique that holds promise for those experiencing disturbing emotional flashbacks.

Keep reading with a Premium Membership

• Read members-only and premium articles
• Access courses
• Adverts removed
• Cancel at any time
• 14 day money-back guarantee for new members

This Drink Reduces Memory Loss Risk By 47%

The common drink that may protect the brain against memory loss.

The common drink that may protect the brain against memory loss.

Drinking orange juice regularly is linked to a 47 percent lower risk of memory problems with age, research suggests.

Berry fruits, orange and red vegetables and leafy greens may also help protect against memory loss.

The results come from a study that followed 27,842 men for 20 years.

Every four years they were asked about the foods they ate and were given tests of their memory and thinking skills.

They were also asked questions including:

  • “Do you have more trouble than usual remembering a short list of items, such as a shopping list?”
  • “Do you have more trouble than usual following a group conversation or a plot in a TV program due to your memory?”

Those that had six servings of fruit and vegetables a day were 34% less likely to experience poor thinking skills later on.

Eating more fruit and vegetables in midlife was linked to better cognitive health later on — even if the men stopped eating fruit and vegetables.

Dr Changzheng Yuan, study co-author, said:

“One of the most important factors in this study is that we were able to research and track such a large group of men over a 20-year period of time, allowing for very telling results.

Our studies provide further evidence dietary choices can be important to maintain your brain health.”

The study only showed an association, it does not prove causation.

The study was published in the journal Neurology (Yuan et al., 2018).

The Mild Nutrient Deficiency Linked To Memory Loss

Supplementation reversed the effects of age-related memory loss.

Supplementation reversed the effects of age-related memory loss.

A diet low in flavanols is linked to age-related memory loss, a large study finds.

However, taking a daily flavanol supplement over three years reversed these losses.

Many people already get enough flavanols from a healthy diet, however those with a poorer diet will probably benefit.

Flavanols, which are a type of flavonoid, are found in nearly all fruits and vegetables, as well as in tea.

Participants in the study with a mild flavanol deficiency experienced boosts to their cognitive functioning of 16 percent over the three years of the study.

Professor Adam Brickman, the study’s first author, said:

“The improvement among study participants with low-flavanol diets was substantial and raises the possibility of using flavanol-rich diets or supplements to improve cognitive function in older adults.”

Neurons in the hippocampus

Professor Scott Small, study co-author, has been studying age-related memory loss for many years.

His lab has shown that changes in the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus, are central to memory decline.

Flavanols, though, enhance neuron and blood vessel growth in this region.

Professor Small said:

“The identification of nutrients critical for the proper development of an infant’s nervous system was a crowning achievement of 20th century nutrition science.

In this century, as we are living longer research is starting to reveal that different nutrients are needed to fortify our aging minds.”

The current study included over 3,500 healthy adults given either a flavanol supplement or a placebo over three years.

The supplement contained 500 mg of flavanols, including 80 mg of epicatechins, a type of flavanol thought to be particularly effective.

The memories of those with mild flavanol deficiencies improved by 10.5 percent compared to placebo and by 16 percent compared to their scores at the start of the study.

Dramatic improvements

While the study provides strong evidence for the benefits of a healthy dietary flavanol intake, Professor Small is cautious:

“We cannot yet definitively conclude that low dietary intake of flavanols alone causes poor memory performance, because we did not conduct the opposite experiment: depleting flavanol in people who are not deficient.”

Next, Professor Small wants to look at the effects of rectifying a severe flavanol deficiency:

“Age-related memory decline is thought to occur sooner or later in nearly everyone, though there is a great amount of variability.

If some of this variance is partly due to differences in dietary consumption of flavanols, then we would see an even more dramatic improvement in memory in people who replenish dietary flavanols when they’re in their 40s and 50s.”

High-flavanol foods

Foods that containing high levels of flavanols include:

  • pears,
  • olive oil,
  • wine,
  • tomato sauce,
  • kale,
  • beans,
  • tea,
  • spinach,
  • broccoli,
  • apples,
  • and oranges.


The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Brickman et al., 2023).

This Sleep Pattern Accelerates Memory Loss – Possible Link to Alzheimer’s

Sleep pattern lowered levels of an antioxidant that helps fight cellular damage, such as that caused by Alzheimer’s.

Sleep pattern lowered levels of an antioxidant that helps fight cellular damage, such as that caused by Alzheimer’s.

Sleep disruptions similar to jet lag could cause memory problems linked to Alzheimer’s disease, research finds.

It’s well-known by scientists that there’s a link between Alzheimer’s and sleep, but not what causes what.

Professor Gregory Brewer, who led the research, said:

“The issue is whether poor sleep accelerates the development of Alzheimer’s disease or vice versa.

It’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma, but our research points to disruption of sleep as the accelerator of memory loss.”

The research gave jet-lag to mice that had been genetically engineered to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

They did this by moving the dark period every three days to a different time — which is what causes jet-lag.

The jet-lagged mice had lower levels of an antioxidant that helps fight cellular damage, such as that caused by Alzheimer’s.

This suggests it could be poor sleep that is contributing to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Brewer said:

“This study suggests that clinicians and caregivers should add good sleep habits to regular exercise and a healthy diet to maximize good memory.”

Dementia and sleep

Many other studies have found a link between dementia and sleep.

People who sleep for too little or too long are at a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Indeed, people who sleep more than 9 hours a night have double the risk of developing dementia, one study found.

However, those who sleep for between 5.5 and 7.5 hours per night do not see declines in their cognitive health, even when suffering the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Those sleeping longer also have lower brain volumes.

Also, getting less REM sleep — the phase in which we dream — is linked to dementia.

During sleep the brain cycles between periods of deep sleep and then up towards shallower periods of sleep in which we tend to dream, whether we remember those dreams or not.

During REM sleep the eyes move rapidly from side-to-side (hence Rapid Eye Movement Sleep).

Sleep apnea has also been linked to developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The most common signs of sleep apnea, which affects 30 percent of older people, include:

  • Loud snoring,
  • gasping for air during sleep,
  • breathing stopping for brief periods during the night,
  • morning headache,
  • and daytime sleepiness and irritability.

The study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (Brewer et al., 2015).

A Simple Trick To Help You Remember Anything

Memory is dynamic, but it needs this clue as to what it should store away so you remember more.

Memory is dynamic, but it needs this clue as to what it should store away so you remember more.

Telling someone else a piece of information helps lodges it into your own memory more securely, psychological research finds.

People in the study who immediately told others a piece of information could remember more later and they remembered it for longer.

Dr Melanie Sekeres, the study’s lead author, explained:

“This has to be actively replaying or re-generating the information — for example, by telling someone the particulars, as opposed to just simply re-reading the textbook or class notes and studying it again later.

A week later, the memory was just as good.

Telling someone else about what you’ve learned is a really effective way for students to study instead of just re-reading the textbook or class notes.”

For the study students were trying to remember the general plots of films and certain details in the films.

Small cues — like the title of the film — were also enough to help students recall the film’s details.

Dr Sekeres said:

“With a cue, suddenly, a lot of those details will come back.

We don’t permanently forget them, which would indicate lack of storage — we just can’t immediately access them.

And that’s good.

That means our memories aren’t as bad as we think.”

Dr Sekeres explained the nature of the films used in the study:

“We chose mostly foreign films and somewhat obscure clips that we thought most undergraduates would not have seen.

The clips all contained brief scenes of normal, everyday events that mimicked the kind of events you might experience in a day, such as a family having dinner or kids playing at a park.”

How to remember more

Trying to explain the information to someone else can be tiring, but the effort is worth it:

“We tell students to test yourself, force yourself to tell someone about the lecture.

Even by writing out some questions for yourself about the information, then later answering them yourself, you are more likely to remember the information.

Unfortunately, simply re-reading or passively listening to a recording of your lecture in the hopes of remembering the information isn’t a great study strategy by comparison.”

The reason testing and re-testing works is because the brain is adaptive:

“We remember the important things, for the most part, and we forget the unimportant details.

You don’t want your brain to search through tons of useless information.”

The study was published in the journal Learning & Memory (Sekeres et al., 2016).

6 Foods That Protect Against Memory Loss

The foods all contain an anti-inflammatory that combats age-related changes in the brain.

The foods all contain an anti-inflammatory that combats age-related changes in the brain.

Carrots, olive oil, celery, thyme, peppermint and chamomile can all help protect the memory against aging, research suggests.

All these foods contain luteolin, a flavonoid which is found in many plants.

Luteolin reduces inflammation in the brain that occurs with aging.

It does so by inhibiting the release of inflammatory molecules in the brain.

The conclusions come from a study of mice, Professor Rodney Johnson, who led the study, explained:

“When we provided the old mice luteolin in the diet it reduced inflammation in the brain and at the same time restored working memory to what was seen in young cohorts.”

Working memory is vital to holding pieces of visual, verbal or other information in your mind while you manipulate them.

Better working memory has been linked to improved learning, attention and other vital outcomes.

Professor Johnson continued:

“We believe dietary luteolin accesses the brain and inhibits or reduces activation of microglial cells and the inflammatory cytokines they produce.

This anti-inflammatory effect is likely the mechanism which allows their working memory to be restored to what it was at an earlier age.

These data suggest that consuming a healthy diet has the potential to reduce age-associated inflammation in the brain, which can result in better cognitive health.”

Other common sources of luteolin include broccoli, green pepper, oregano and parsley.

Luteolin works, the study found, by acting directly on microglial cells.

The microglia are cells in the brain that help regulate normal functioning.

Professor Johnson said:

“We found previously that during normal aging, microglial cells become dysregulated and begin producing excessive levels of inflammatory cytokines.

We think this contributes to cognitive aging and is a predisposing factor for the development of neurodegenerative diseases.”

For the study, younger and older mice were fed a control diet or one supplemented with luteolin for four weeks.

The results showed that older mice given the luteolin supplement performed almost as well as the younger mice in cognitive tests.

The study was published in the Journal of Nutrition (Jang et al., 2010).

Get free email updates

Join the free PsyBlog mailing list. No spam, ever.