The Zeigarnik Effect And Completing Everything

Round and round the circle
Completing the charm
So the knot be unknotted
the cross be uncrossed
the crooked be made straight
And the curse be ended.

—-T. S. Eliot in Family Reunion (1939) pt 2, sec 3

Incompletion - leaving an activity or relationship unfinished-can be a severe hindrance to living fully in the present. To become consciously aware of this effect, I encourage a behavioral experiment purposefully for one hour, one day or one week: do not complete any task, assignment, job, goal or obligation. Observe how you feel. In short order you will notice how uncomfortable, dissatisfied and distressed you are. What is going on here?

Psychological research on incompletion dates at least from the late 1920's when the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik gave 138 children simple tasks to do, like puzzles and arithmetic. She interrupted one-half in mid-task and allowed the other half to complete the tasks. One hour later only about one in ten (12%) recalled the completed tasks, while 8% remembered the same number of each. However, a whopping 80% remembered the interrupted tasks! Repeated experiments confirmed that individuals of all ages tend to remember uncompleted tasks far better than completed ones. 1

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. Drawing upon this phenomenon, Buffington concluded that consistently accentuating positives, specifically by drawing positive mental pictures, while avoiding the introduction of negatives in what you say can influence children and adults to have a more positive attitude. 2

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 jobs we've finished, while there's a strong investment of interest in unfinished projects that enhances our memory. For example, if you are a collector, you probably know the items you still want, and don't remember as well what you've already found. The moral is this: we remember what we don't complete, especially the negative, while we tend to not remember what we have completed. Consultants worth their salt know this and the implications are enormous.

The Zeigarnik effect impacts your life and can be observed every day. The stress of daily hassles and frustrations often stem from incomplete tasks. Ambivalence and procrastination can often be traced to the same source: the lawns bugging you to get mowed; the dishes screaming to be washed; the bills pushing you to get paid. How burdensome is the mental and emotional energy they consume, and how they rob us of the present.

The Zeigarnik Effect remains so long as the subject is self-involved with the uncompleted tasks, that is, feels connected in regard to what it tells that person about himself or herself. 3 Other research studies on interruption of test subjects doing simple tasks like jigsaw puzzles by Russian scientist Bluma Zeigarnik found that the test subjects least likely to complete the task were those who had been disrupted at the start. Apparently participants hadn't had the time to become cognitively invested in the task, so they experienced trouble recovering from the distraction. Those who were interrupted closer to the end of the task were more likely to persist with the task to completion.

However, further research by Rosensweig showed an opposite effect with people engaging in threatening, stressful tasks that aroused in a personal way their attitudes of self-esteem and pride (an intelligence test), as compared with non-threatening, non-stressful tasks (helping classify puzzles for future use). People in the first condition, when interruption was equivalent to failure, recalled more completed than uncompleted tasks! This investigator interpreted these results to mean that when self-esteem is directly involved, people tend to remember their successes and forget their unpleasant failures. 4

I wonder if there would be a way to apply both forms of the Zeigarnik effect? A second behavioral experiment is suggested: with the life you're committed to living at stake, that is, your pride and self-esteem, choose to complete everything, every minute, everywhere with everyone, including yourself. Invest enough time, energy and attention in each task to honestly be cognitively invested in it so you are likely to persist to task completion. As you make it a habit to follow through with persistent completions, you can discover the consequences you experience.

It has been my experience that such completions usually result in the satisfaction of making a productive difference, fulfillment in savoring your successful completions, and having greater inner peace. Research would suggest that you would not carrying the memory of incompleted tasks, since you're completing them, but would remember your completed successes. There may be some contrarians in life who have the habit of incompletions and seemingly may even feel trapped by completions, it just doesn't apply to most of us.

Comparing completion to incompletion is the difference between the impact of Mozart and the Beatles on the one hand, whose music is amazingly complete, and many modern composers who continually leave you up in the air, hanging and incomplete. How do you feel when you listen to each? It's the difference between a house or office that is neatly ordered and one that isn't. How do you feel when you walk into a house or office that is well structured or one that is disorganized? How does it feel to be interrupted in an encounter or conversation, or allowed to complete what was started?

The wide range of uncomfortable feelings most of us experience reflects how much incompleteness weighs upon us and blocks our ability to live in the present. Creating closure and completion can become a major avenue for significantly lowering your stress levels and accomplishing more, all while developing greater presence in every moment.

Notice what is incomplete, unfinished or unresolved in your life, and write it down to make it more concrete and real for you. You might even assign an emotional or energy weight to each item in terms of pounds. It is amazing how many hundreds of extra emotional pounds we are carrying around all the time! How wonderfully liberating it is to consciously choose to lose this excess baggage, and travel lighter.

In honestly facing any substantial issue in your personality, relation- ships, work or personal lives, you can consider yourself quite fortunate if you finish or complete 80% to 90%. I don't know anyone who ever gets to 100% on the perpetual issues in their lives. Do you? Now, can you ease up on yourself?


1. Bluma Zeigarnik, "Uber das Behalten von Erledigten and Unerledigten Handlungen." Psychologische Forschung 9, 1927, pages 1-85; research summarized in Robert M. Goldenson, The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), page 885.

2. Perry W. Buffington, Cheap Psychological Tricks (Atlanta, Georgia: Peachtree Publishers Ltd., 1996), pages 93-95.

3. Self-involvement interpretation offered in J. P. Chaplin, Dictionary of Psychology, Second Revised Edition (New York: A Laurel Book / Dell Publishing, 1985), page 498.

4. Saul Rosenzweig, "An Experimental Study of 'Repression' with Special reference to Need-persistive and Ego-defensive Reactions to Frustration," Journal of Experimental Psychology, 32, 1943, pages 64-74.

  • Miles

    Hey Will,

    I really enjoyed your article. I had confused this idea with that of cognitive dissonance but this cleared things up for me.

    It's an interesting concept and one that I'm taking more to heart these days. In making the effort to commit to completion I've really noticed a difference in my daily life. It noticably prevents (at least reduces) distress and anxiety and really works to nourish contentment while boosting self esteem. My overall focus seems to improve as well.

    I'll try the exercise you suggested. I'm quite certain that I'll benefit measurably from it.

    Thanks again!