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The Power of the Incomplet

There is a tussle occurring in your head that is stressing you out. It is every unfinished task, uncompleted thought, and unresolved conflict you have jockeying for your attention, wanting you to hang onto it, deal with it, and not forget it.

Believe it or not, this battle is actually a blessing! Except when it’s a curse.

A Waiter Remembers

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian psychology student who observed a waiter who had an amazing ability to remember patrons and meal orders from several tables without writing them down. (I'm always amazed when I see this because half the time I can't even remember what I ordered!)

When she approached the waiter later that evening, he couldn’t remember any of the orders. “I just keep the orders in my mind until they are served,” he explained. Fascinated, Zeigarnik conducted studies on memory and found that unfinished tasks draw the attention of our consciousness but are eliminated once they are completed.

This became known the Zeigarnik Effect, and it is a phenomenon based on the primitive lizard brain’s primary function - handling threats. If there is potential danger, we need to remember what and where it is until it is gone and we are safe. Then we can forget it.

The Up-side of Incomplete

We can use this invisible mind block to our advantage in several ways:

- Studying. Students who schedule interruptions while studying and perform unrelated activities before returning to their studies perform better when recalling the information. This is due to the brain allocating more attention resources during the incomplete period.

- Beating procrastination. For tasks you tend to put off or avoid, focus on just getting started, not the completion. Once started, the desire for completion will help drive you the rest of the way.

- Presentations. To increase engagement with a presentation or pitch, ask a question or present an intriguing premise that you do not resolve until later. (Be sure that you DO resolve it eventually or the audience will feel cheated).

- Marketing. In ads or direct mail materials, do not provide complete information about the product. Leave obvious gaps or unanswered questions to increase consumer recall.

The Downside of Incomplete

David Allen wrote the ground-breaking book on productivity, Getting Things Done. His message is that incomplete tasks grab our attention and brain resources, causing stress and keeping us from maximizing our productivity and creativity.

To handle incomplete tasks we need to either 1) close them now, or 2) download them from our brain into an external system that we trust. By using organized systems that have mechanisms for bringing items back to our attention as needed (such as reminders and notifications), we can “let go” of the need to worry about remembering them.

For example, every email in your inbox is an incomplete task representing something you need to do, whether it is answer it, delete it, or file it.

To that end, Allen is a big proponent of the concept of Inbox Zero - a process that allows you to keep your email inbox empty by handling each message in one of three ways: 1) acting on it now and moving it to an appropriate folder, 2) deleting it, 3) moving it into a “pending” folder for later action (with a future reminder to act).

Make It Work for You

By understanding how The Zeigarnik Effect can influence your thinking and memory, you can harness its positive effects and mitigate its negative effects to be more productive, effective and a better version of you.

The picture at the beginning of this newsletter is incomplete - my attempt to compel your lizard to influence you to read the newsletter to get filled in. Did it work? You made it this far, didn't you?

Here is the full picture, and it is of our heroine, Bluma Zeigarnik:

Finally, if you really want to improve your memory and thinking, you should… well, I’ll save that for my next post to the Invisible Mind Blocks blog.

(See what I did there?)

Think well,

- Steve


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