A few months ago, I stumbled upon the Zeigarnik Effect. It is the effect that prevents us from interrupting our teeth-brushing in the middle. Once we’ve started, we feel a need to keep going. It’s really useful.
For me, it was a missing piece of the puzzle that fitted nicely alongside the idea of GTD’s “open loops”. If you have to interrupt something before you’re done with it or the task is completely, the Zeigarnik Effect will make sure your brain nags you about it.
It explains why it’s important to “just get started” or “just do something”. It also explains why having a lot of ongoing stuff in parallel is stressful.
While I’ve been writing this post, I’ve given myself a wonderful demonstration of the Zeigarnik Effect in action. You see, I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d heard about it. I’m pretty sure it’s in one of James Clear‘s posts, because it’s definitely the kind of thing that he writes about, but I’m not 100% certain.
I can remember the context: for a given task, there is a kind of “tipping point” where the Zeigarnik Effect kicks in, and you finish what you’ve started. Knowing where that point is comes in really handy for getting things done rather than just thinking about how we’re not doing them. I remember the example clearly: for flossing, the “tipping point” or “trigger” in question was when he’d torn the piece of floss off the roll.
I’ve just spent… oh, I don’t even dare tell you… way too much time trying to find that article so I could link to it. I found plenty about flossing and the Zeigarnik effect. The worst is that I already spent way too much time trying to dig out that source when preparing a mini-workshop on “time/task management” I gave two months back. And didn’t find it.
You know the irony? I just stumbled upon the article in question! It wasn’t James Clear after all. And you know the funny bit? I thought I’d add a link to a Google search in the above paragraph. Just to show you how much stuff about Zeigarnik and floss I had waded through. To my surprise, many of the links there were not those I had been wading through an hour ago. Maybe I only searched in specific places where I thought the article was, like Clear’s blog. Anyway. I have it! Incredible!
The reason I went down that rabbit-hole was because it was an “unfinished task”. And the more time I spent trying to “finish” it, the stronger my urge to keep going became. Typical, right?
And here we go again: while looking up some old articles of mine, I remembered that the markdown plugin wasn’t working on the new server. I had to hold myself back from downloading and installing it. It would have meant interrupting the writing of this blog post, though, so I guess that is what just saved me. But now I have this nagging “open loop” in a corner of my mind.
(Bear with me while I add it to my running list of things that need to be done so I can stop thinking about it.)
(Oops, while I was there, I quickly checked a spreadsheet to see if there were any new sign-ups for my next workshop. There weren’t. Do I leave the form open or close it now?)
As you can see, there is a clear link here to multitasking, procrastination, and the general feeling of “not enough brain space” that I have a times. It also makes me think about how when I start something, I have a lot of trouble stopping. Hypertrophied Zeigarnik Effect?
Today — and this is what prompted this post — I suddenly realised that the Zeigarnik Effect played an important part in dragging me back to my computer, or my phone (home to Facebook and Google Plus). By participating in online communities and networks (sounds better than “social media” doesn’t it? more human?) I set things in motion that do not end.
An online conversation is never-ending. There are always people in the chatroom. I post a link, it will be interesting to see who likes, comments, or shares it. I stumble upon interesting articles that need to be read.
My time on my phone or my computer is spent creating innumerable open loops that I am then desperate to close, while at the same time opening yet others that will also have to be closed. Whack-a-mole.
It feels like my “tipping point” for feeling the urge to finish something (or at least dive in) is ridiculously early. Am I mixing two things up here? Do we still speak of the Zeigarnik Effect when a task has not actually been started? Is thinking about doing it sufficient in some cases to “initiate” it?
So here’s my next mission: taming my open loops. I can’t remove them, but I can learn to live with them better.
(This was originally the title to this post, but given I’m not sure how I’m going to do that it seemed a little misleading.)
Before writing this post, I googled for “open loops social media” and other related searches, and I now have about a dozen articles to read about “compulsion loops” and the inevitable “social media addiction” (disclaimer: I’m not convinced it is correct to speak about “addiction” in this context). I’ll probably have more to write on the topic… if I manage to get around to reading them. 😉