The Blessing and Curse of the Zeigarnik Effect

In the early 20th century, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik studied what became known as the Zeigarnik effect after her professor noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders than ones that were completed (Wikipedia). In these modern times, where considerably more tasks abound, it’s often referred to as ‘open loops’ or ‘dangling threads’ and everyone can relate to one degree or another.

Whether by nature or by practice, I am personally quite susceptible to the Zeigarnik effect. As an avid GTD‘er I try very hard to capture the various open loops as they come up so I can circle back and address them by providing an update or otherwise following up. That allows me to provide closure and move on to the next thing.

It’s a blessing

Overall, I think it suits me well, and I suppose it means I can easily be called ‘detailed oriented’ though I tend to refer to myself by the gaming term completionist. As a task comes in via email or up in a conversation, I naturally make a mental note of it and usually capture it in OmniFocus or on paper. In some cases, I’ll even alter something to help me remember to act later.

I have frequently been commended for keeping on top of things, and I do view it as a point of pride that I rarely let things slip through my fingers. It has helped me considerably in my career in IT, which is regularly challenged by the need to manage lots of little details.

It’s a curse

However, open items do weigh on me. I also have a high level of responsibility. I’m always working to keep short accounts, especially if it’s something that I owe to others. That results in me being acutely aware of the ‘pile’ of tasks, which generally acts as a barometer. If I’m making progress in closing loops, great! If things come in as quickly as they go out, I start to get frustrated. If they come in faster than they’re going out; things get really dicey.

Meeting in the middle

As I examine myself, I’m becoming more aware of how I work, trying to improve the parts I don’t like and maximize the parts I do. Some loops I can delegate to other people, and others can be delegated to the floor. I’ll certainly keep up with capturing things. Trying to hold all the items in my head would be a recipe for disaster.

Ultimately, like anything else, it comes down to utilizing experience and wisdom to provide better insight into what loops constitute things of actual importance and what are merely minutiae and can be ‘tied off’ and left behind. As I continue to work on it, it will hopefully become more and more of a blessing and, perhaps, a superpower.

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