By the second week of February, some 80% of people who make New Year’s resolutions will be suffering remorse from having given up on getting fit, losing weight or otherwise improving their lives, according to the latest research. But if you’re one of them, don’t lose heart. Instead, consider a cognitive behaviour recognised by psychologists: our compulsion to finish what we’ve started.
The behaviour was first acknowledged – and named – back in the 1920s when a group of talented psychologists would regularly meet at their favourite restaurant to exchange ideas and discuss the theories of the day.
Their meetings would also provide an opportunity to witness the extraordinary memory skills of their waiter, a man who would be able to remember a huge number of complex orders for food and drink without the need for a notepad.
His ability was so impressive it prompted one young female Russian academic, by the name of Bluma Zeigarnik, to undertake an impromptu experiment.
After another faultless service of food and drink, Bluma and her fellow companions covered their plates and cups with napkins and asked the waiter to tell them what they had ordered. He failed spectacularly, not even coming close to the real order.
The group was baffled. How could the waiter have lost his powers of recollection so quickly? Zeigarnik thought she knew the answer.
Straight after the last plate of food and final drink had been served, the waiter had completed his task. He was no long required to invest any more attention or brain power to the job - he was finished.
From that experiment, and many subsequent studies, the Zeigarnik Effect was born. Put simply, our attention is drawn to, and we tend to remember, incomplete or interrupted tasks much more than completed ones. It’s human nature to want to finish something we’ve already started, because if we don’t, it’s always on our minds, which creates mental tension. Once we can tick it off our list as done, there’s closure, and a release of the tension. This is what is known as the Zeigarnik Effect.
It’s a principle that’s used all the time on us in our daily lives - from Amazon’s “saved for later” button in our shopping basket to the display banner that follows us around the internet. Even the headline of this article is using it to some degree.
Cliffhangers in film, TV shows or books are another great example of humans needing closure. If you’ve ever read ‘The Da Vinci Code’, you’ll know that one of the reasons the book is such a page-turner is that Dan Brown constructed each chapter with what we can now see as a ‘Zeigarnik Hook’ at the end. That hook drives you to continue reading in order to find a resolution.
There is certainly something compelling about the unfinished and, if you understand the principle correctly, it can prove invaluable to leaders and procrastinators alike because the upshot is: it’s never too late.
So how to use the Zeigarnik Effect to revisit those New Year’s resolutions? Just start them again, even if just for a short while. Because now you know that your brain will keep nagging at you to see them through otherwise, and when we’ve got enough stress in our lives, who needs the extra hassle from your own subconscious?
Even if you revisit a resolution just briefly, it quietens the effect for a bit, but you’re also signaling to your brain to keep on at you to complete it – making it more likely you’ll finally finish what you’ve started.
So next time you have five minutes to spare, rather than look at another funny cat video, why not give your resolution another go or even just add it to your to-do list?
Rather than worrying about what has yet to be done, even just starting off with a small step can help. That way the goal you are trying to achieve instantly becomes an incomplete one, which, as we have learnt from Bluma Zeigarnik, can be very powerful.