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How Bluma Zeigarnik Can Calm Your Mind (To Get Things Done)

You’re not the only one who feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of goals in your head that crave closure. Bluma Zeigarnik shows you the way to a calmer mind—no matter how much is still on your plate.

Zeigarnik Effect: Waiter placing a drink on a table
Photo: unsplash.com / Edward Howell (@edwardhowellphotography)

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychiatrist. In the 1920s, she found that waiters remembered unpaid orders better than those that had already been paid for. Indeed, people remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed ones—this is called the Zeigarnik Effect.

You’re the waiter of your life

The Zeigarnik Effect has a profound impact on your daily life, probably without you knowing it. Our lives are full of loose ends; some of us are juggling hundreds of tasks in our heads waiting to be completed. Some of them are so daunting that they alone feel unmanageable.

That we feel so miserable, so anxious about that is a result of the Zeigarnik Effect: The loose ends keep nagging us because our minds want us to complete them. They crave closure. We feel bad, so we act—that’s our brains' strategy. But then we don’t because we feel so discouraged. What a nightmare.

Use Zeigarnik to your advantage

There is a way out. Interestingly, it’s the Zeigarnik Effect itself that serves as the exit light: In order to stop feeling miserable, we need to come up with a plan that signals our minds that the task can and will (realistically) be completed.

Our brains don’t necessarily need closure in terms of us achieving the goal or completing the task. They just want to know that we’re actually intentional about doing it, what the next step is, when we’re going to start, and if we can still meet our internal or external deadline. If that plan makes sense to our brains, they’ll calm down immediately.

Break out of the cycle

I’ve tried this hundreds of times, and it never failed unless the plan was impossible to carry out. Some of the goals we want or need to achieve are so complex, scary, or difficult that we can’t even get ourselves to start working on them. We feel paralyzed by the burden on our shoulders. We know that we need to accomplish them to feel better; nonetheless, we don’t act, and we feel foolish as a result.

We’ll remain in this unproductive cycle and continue to feel miserable until we either complete the project or develop a plan that calms our minds. If accomplishing a goal is so frightening that we can’t even move, we might just need to make a plan. A plan that tells our brains that everything will be fine. Because it will.