August 22, 2018

Have you ever started something, dropped it to do something else, and then heard a voice in your head reminding you over and over (and over) again that you haven’t finished the job?

Of course you have. But did you know that it has a name?

Meet the Zeigarnik effect: the finding that people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks.

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered the effect in the early 1900s. Her professor mentioned that a waiter at his local cafe was much more likely to remember orders that were in process than those that had been cooked, delivered, and paid for. So, Zeigarnik decided to test the observation with a series of experiments, which came to a similar conclusion: We remember incomplete tasks better than completed tasks. And, once a task is complete, the mental nagging stops.

The Zeigarnik effect can kick in when you have an unfinished work project, or have yet to finish cleaning out your bathroom. But it’s present elsewhere in your life, too—say, when you watch the first episode of "Gilmore Girls" and find yourself returning to Netflix night after night, hanging on to every one of Sookie's one-liners, until you’ve seen the finale. It’s that pull you feel toward something you haven’t finished; that voice in your ear reminding you over and over again.

The Zeigarnik effect can kick in when you have an unfinished work project or have yet to finish cleaning out your bathroom.

Like most psychological theories, it’s gone through a few changes over the years. Experts had long believed that the Zeigarnik effect was the brain’s way of prompting its owner to finish a task, nagging the mind to wrap up what had been started. But recent research has found that the Zeigarnik effect is a little more specific than that.

“(The) unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan,” write Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. “The unconscious mind apparently can't do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.”

Sounds great, right? It’s like a built-in to-do-list, no iPhone note required. But here’s the thing: That constant mental nagging can seriously drain you after a while.

That feeling of something hanging over your head—in all its detailed glory—can trigger anxious thoughts and even physical tension. So when you feel the Zeigarnik effect start to kick in, use it to take action. Here’s how to do it.

1. Recognize What’s Blocking You From the Finish Line

Perform your own mini psych study and think back to the last time you were at a busy restaurant. Did your waiter forget a drink? Seem a little flustered? The Zeigarnik effect may help us remember what needs to be done, but it can also lead to production overload. Focusing on unfinished tasks can get tricky if it seems like all your tasks are unfinished. So try paring down your to-do list to what really matters.

As author Christine Carter suggests on Greater Good, cross off anything that doesn’t really need to get done—whether you’ve started it or not.

“Maybe you need to mourn (a little tiny bit) the fact that you are never going to make those photo albums (that you hate making but really felt like you should make)," she writes. "It’s normal to feel sad, or a sense of regret—but also, be real: You aren’t grieving anything tangible; you’re grieving the loss of a fantasy...You’re giving up the fantasy that you are the type of person who makes photo albums.”

Once you’ve ditched the mental clutter, you should find yourself better able to focus on what you do have to get done.

2. Make a Detailed Plan

Silence that nagging voice by getting specific with what you’re going to do. If it helps, you can write it down.

Try breaking down a task into parts: What do you need to do first? When will you do it? How long will it take? Then move on to part two.

Having a clear battle plan can turn off the mental reminder to finish something, and has even been shown to reduce stress: A 2011 study found that planning events, rather than letting them happen, is linked to higher overall levels of happiness as compared with those who don’t plan.

3. Make It Fun

Let’s face it: Making a plan does not guarantee a successful end. If it did, we’d all be at the height of our careers, sitting on piles of money in our fully decorated (and thoroughly cleaned) homes. To keep moving the needle, try turning your dreaded task into something you’ll actually enjoy.

To keep moving the needle, try turning your dreaded task into something you’ll actually enjoy.

“I’ve been known to sit on the lawn in the sun and make doctor appointments, and I listen to fun audiobooks while driving to pick up kids and while cleaning the house,” Carter writes. “My co-worker and I have been putting off reviewing our financial systems for, oh, years, but we just made a plan to do it together this summer poolside...needless to say, we aren’t dreading the task anymore!”

Once you associate your to-be-completed project with something joyful, you might find it a little easier to get started. And once you get started, the Zeigarnik effect will make sure you remember the details and keep trucking along.

Still avoiding that difficult task? We got you—try the Push Past Procrastination meditation in the Shine iOS app.

Read next: 10 Things That Steal Our Motivation—and How to Get It Back)