The modern corporate culture is based on a set of unwritten rules, one of which is peak performance. On the other hand, peak performance may cause a negative impact on so-called “creative tension” — a term used when referring to a gap between company vision and actual reality. Creative tension leads to better ideas and brings better results. We feel the urge to resolve the tension and therefore demonstrate better productivity.
However, leaders who work with high-performance teams know that creative tension also has its flip side. When employees have too many unfinished tasks, they experience too much tension. In turn, increased tension boosts their sense of anxiousness and ultimately decreases productivity. Leaders themselves are prone to the same problem, feeling overwhelmed and stressed out because of unfinished tasks. The good news is that this problem, also known as the Zeigarnik effect, is manageable.
The Zeigarnik Effect: Theory
This psychological effect was discovered by Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in the 1920s. When Zeigarnik was at the University of Berlin, her professor, Kurt Lewin, noticed an interesting fact: Waiters in a restaurant quickly forgot paid orders but kept track of unpaid ones, knowing all the details. Zeigarnik decided to learn more about this interesting phenomenon and conducted an experiment, which became a basis for her work “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks.”
The experiment itself was quite simple. Participants were asked to complete a set of tasks. A supervisor interrupted participants from time to time and then asked questions related to different tasks. It turned out that participants recalled details of their tasks better if they were interrupted. When we have unfulfilled goals, our brain fixates on them. As a result, we cannot focus on the current task and our productivity declines.
Gordon Shea, a leadership coach and expert at College Writers, notes: “Many leaders wake up wishing to have a productive day. They start to think about work, check a to-do list, and then suddenly find themselves unproductive and distracted. There is always something that ruins our plans and prevents us from getting things done.” Fortunately, if you know how productivity and the Zeigarnik effect work, you can break this vicious cycle and become more effective than ever.
What Leaders Should Know about Productivity and the Zeigarnik Effect
1. Priority-setting is crucial
Leaders are always busy, and they often need to think of too many things at the same time. They manage teams, they plan business activities, take care of their families, etc. You can minimize the number of unfinished tasks if you set priorities. Be realistic and give up some exciting idea if you understand that you are unlikely to have time for it. Focus on the task at hand, and when you complete it, start working on the next most relevant problem.
2. To-do lists are a bad habit
It may seem that to-do lists actually help you set goals and track your tasks. However, according to research, people don’t manage to complete more than 41% of tasks in their to-do lists. Thus, instead of helping us to be more productive, to-do lists trigger the Zeigarnik effect, leading to stress, anxiety, and even insomnia. Instead of writing to-do lists, we suggest that you schedule all the necessary activities on your calendar. In addition, to-do lists don’t allow for proper planning. You can achieve more if you write a detailed plan for a certain task, complete it, and then plan another one.
3. The 80/20 rule helps fight the Zeigarnik effect
The Pareto Principle states that 20% of activities bring 80% of outcomes. Many successful leaders follow the 80/20 rule, focusing on the most important activities. To not get overwhelmed with countless tasks, don’t think of how you can do it. Instead, think of how it can be done. There are many tasks you actually don’t need to take care of. Delegate as much as you can and focus on the most important issues. Micro-management leads to a growing number of unfinished tasks and significantly decreases your productivity.
The Zeigarnik effect makes our mind fixate on unfinished tasks and distracts us from working on tasks that are actually important at this moment. Unfinished tasks significantly decrease our productivity and prevent us from achieving important goals. Leaders can avoid the Zeigarnik effect by changing their habits. To minimize the impact of the Zeigarnik effect on your productivity, you should prioritize tasks and focus only on what is most important now, paying more attention to planning and proper delegating.