NLP, the Zeigarnik Effect & ‘Unfinished Business’

Reading time 5 mins

Leaving things undone

In our NLP workshops we discuss ‘open loops’ and we use them to make the NLP insights and techniques more memorable – and to enable us to pack much more learning into a given length of training programme than would be possible with the traditional beginning-middle-end approach.

For example, if we start exploring a topic such as Rapport we might develop the topic up to a point and then leave it and go on to something else – leaving an open loop. And then come back to Rapport later in the day or even a few days later and extend the topic further.

Why this apparently sloppy style?

Why leave things unfinished?

Surely the best way to train people is to give them the whole topic before moving on to the next one?

Not so.  As Bluma Zeigarnik demonstrated back in 1927 in a paper which states that unfinished tasks are remembered better than finished ones.

What is ‘unfinished business’?

  • Have you ever had a telephone argument with somebody at the end of which they slammed the phone down on you?
  • Have you ever been reading a chapter in a novel which ended on a cliffhanger and, even though you were so sleepy you could hardly keep your eyes open, you had to read the next chapter to find out what happened next?
  • Have you ever left home to go to work and felt a nagging doubt that you had forgotten something – only to discover when it was too late to return that you had forgotten your wallet or purse or some other important item?

What’s the common factor in these questions? They all imply unfinished business – loose ends, open loops.

And unfinished business tends to play on the mind.

That’s why some of us wake up during the night and replay arguments that we’d had during the day and which ended unsatisfactorily. Or wake up during the night and mentally run through unfinished work projects. Or find our attention drifting in the middle of a conversation or TV programme.

We don’t like loose ends

The mind likes tidiness and the security of knowing that something has been completed – that it’s done and dusted! And if something hasn’t been completed and therefore isn’t tidy we can find ourselves mulling it over again and again and again – partly to ensure that we don’t forget about it.

So if you have a lot of unfinished business, a lot of loose ends, in your life this can create a quite uncomfortable and stressful ongoing emotional and physical state – unless you are good at managing things.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Incidentally this “unfinished business” phenomenon has been christened the “Zeigarnik Effect” and a paper was published on the subject by the Lithuanian-born Bluma Zeigarnik (1901-1988) way back in 1927 which demonstrated that adults remember unfinished tasks up to 90% better than finished ones!

Friend – and foe!

The Zeigarnik effect can be a double-edged sword. It can be either friend or foe. It can account for tremendous creativity and productivity on the one hand.

And be responsible for tremendous uneasiness and pressure on the other.

If you have lots of unfinished business in your life, if you do lots of multitasking and/or have your finger in lots of pies at once then you can be very creative and achieve lots.

But at a cost: it can affect your peace of mind, it can create physical tension, and it can affect your health. It can even affect your relationships since, to your nearest and dearest, you appear constantly preoccupied or “somewhere else”.

Of course, “can” affect you implies that this doesn’t have to be so…

Managing unfinished business

Your mind endlessly “goes over” the unfinished things so that you can keep track of them and stay up to date with them. So the simple and almost clichéd solution is the time-honoured “to do list”.

Yes, sorry, it’s no more cutting-edge than that! Though you can add a few little refinements to make the “To Do List” work even better.

Many people find that having a physically written list, on paper, works better than a digital list. Coloured pens can help.

1. Redo the list daily

Yes, it’s a chore and can take up to 5 minutes! But a tidy and ‘clean’ list makes for a better mental picture than one with lots of crossed out and added in items. And redoing the list daily is mentally reassuring so there is less need to “go over things”.

2. End of the day

Do tomorrow’s list before the end of your working day. For example, if you work at a desk it’s good practice is to leave your desk clear apart from your to-do list. That way you have a mental picture to reassure you if you find yourself slipping back into the old “mulling over” habit during the evening or night.

3. Make it a habit

For the first few weeks, at least, this “mulling over” habit will likely keep recurring.  After all you’ve probably been doing it for a long time.  So, immediately you find yourself doing it silently ask yourself “is this item on the list?”  If it is then remind yourself that it’s taken care of.  If isn’t then make a written note of it so that it can be attended to at an appropriate time.

The positive edge of that sword

We can use the phenomenon of the Zeigarnik Effect to ensure that we remember things better and to be more creative and productive in our lives. To take just two examples:

(1) If you are planning something important, preparing a presentation, or even writing fiction you can use the Zeigarnik Effect by stopping writing in the middle of an idea or passage. That way it will play on the mind, in a pleasant and creative way, and it will be much easier to resume writing next time.

(2) If you are a teacher, or are teaching your own children, change topics when the students begin to ‘get’ the topic.  Not only will they be looking forward to resuming it but their minds will be creatively playing with the concepts even while they are learning other things. Incidentally, Bluma Zeigarnik’s paper went so far as to suggest that children only remembered unfinished or interrupted tasks – thought this idea has been challenged.

A ‘To Do List’ experiment…

Begin an ‘Unfinished Business’ list now. Include all the bits of unfinished business that exist in your life right now:

  • phone calls to return
  • emails to reply to
  • things to purchase
  • projects you’ve begun which need to be finished, etc.

Keep adding to the list for a day or two. Yes, this can be an uncomfortable experience. But it’s better to get everything out of your head and on paper (or on screen) so you can keep active track of things.

Now think about how much energy is required to mentally, even in the back of your mind, keep track of all these things…

Now think about the peace of mind and the clarity of mind you’ll regain by making the To Do list a habit.


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