The Zeiganik Effect and Stress Management

Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychologist and involved in the Vygotsky Circle. I’ve always been interested in the social learning theories of Vygotsky, and his work was quite influential on language teaching for a while way back. So I was interested when Zeigarnik’s work arose in the context of a hypnosis training that I was taking under the instructorship of Dr. Richard Harte in the United States. I was reminded of the Zeigarnik effect recently when Dr. Harte sadly passed away.

One of Dr. Harte’s most important contributions to society was his use of hypnosis and other relaxation techniques for stress management techniques.  He carried out trainings in many companies across the United States, teaching thousands of people simple techniques for restoring balance to their lives. When he taught us some of these stress management techniques, he introduced it with the Zeigarnik effect.

The Zeigarnik effect can be defined as “the psychological tendency to remember an uncompleted task rather than a completed one.” It arose in a rather casual way. Zeigarnik used to go into a restaurant with friends for her dinner and after dinner she would talk and kept talking and talking until the waitresses would come over.

The waitresses began to become visibly agitated. They wanted her to leave so that they could take all the dirty dishes away from the table and set it up for the next diners. The waiters were suffering from unfinished business and as a result, they became stress.

As long as there is unfinished business, people tend to get agitated and stressed. People want stability in their lives- they want things to be finished and steady, so change and unfinished business causes stress. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between increased stress and unfinished tasks.

Zeigarnik also reported that people are twice as likely to remember unfinished tasks versus finished tasks. So for example, the waiters in the restaurant where she used to go could remember a long list of customer orders, but then immediately forgot them as soon as the customers had left and the task was finished!

On any particular day,  unfinished tasks exist in our lives and our bosses or other people will often bring more of them to us. And you have to process these unfinished tasks. But naturally, there are just too many unfinished tasks, and despite our best intentions, our best efficiency tools, and our long working hours, modern life is just too complex to complete all of the unfinished tasks. And this produces stress – often a low level of stress that is always there and wears us down physically and mentally.

Unfinished tasks creates stress.

We have choices. We can try to use better to-do lists, we can work harder, we can delegate more, or we can say no to new work. All of these are useful options, but none of them is ever going to solve the problem completely.

The only really worthwhile answer is that we have to learn to manage stress. Self-hypnosis, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques are very useful for this. When we are stressed, our focus narrows into tunnel vision and we lose perspective. Stress actually reduces our effectiveness because we can’t see the forest for the trees – the big picture and goals are blocked by all the little stress-causing details.

Hypnosis and other relaxation techniques allow us to step back from the immediate cause of the stress for a few minutes and to begin to see the bigger picture again. It allows us to notice the completed tasks as well as the uncompleted tasks and to realize that we have probably already made great progress in what we are trying to achieve.

As Zeigarnik noticed, it is natural to over-focus on unfinished tasks. Real stress management begins when we learn to re-create a more healthy focus.

I will be running a stress management workshop in June with Richard Davies and will be thinking about Dr. Harte. I know that he would be happy to know that his ideas and useful techniques for stress management are going out to people on the other side of the world.

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