Start even if you can’t finish. It may feel more productive to wait until you have enough time to complete a task in its entirety. However, the psychology of unfinished tasks suggests that it’s better to start working on a task, even if you can’t finish it in one go. Once started, you will feel more inclined to finish the job at the earliest opportunity.
Take breaks. Taking breaks helps restore your motivation, prevent decision fatigue, consolidate your memories, increase your creativity, and improve your well-being. In addition, the Zeigarnik effect shows that your mind will naturally work to retain information when you take regular breaks, therefore boosting your productivity. And when a task is left unfinished, the Ovsiankina effect will draw you back to ensure you finish the job.
Follow the ten minute rule. Fight procrastination by talking yourself into getting started with the ten minute rule. There’s a good chance that once you get started, you’ll keep going for longer than ten minutes. And even if you don’t, the combined power of the Zeigarnik effect and the Ovsiankina effect will make it more likely you will finish the task later.
Critically appraise your tasks. If you notice that despite applying these strategies you still have tasks that are left unfinished for too long, consider whether these tasks are a priority. Use the Eisenhower matrix or the MoSCoW method of prioritisation to delete or delegate some of these tasks.
Practise self-compassion. The downside of the Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects is that an unfinished task can cause stress and anxiety through intrusive thoughts. Don’t beat yourself up when you have a long list of unfinished tasks. Instead, be kind to yourself and practice mindfulness through journaling, meditation, and exercise.
Unfinished tasks can feel overwhelming, leading to procrastination and slowing your progress. On the other hand, the annoyance of having all of these unfinished tasks on your to-do list may motivate you to tackle them at the next opportunity. These contradictory experiences are due to two effects: the Zeigarnik effect and the Ovsiankina effect.
Zeigarnik and her supervisor, professor Kurt Lewin, observed that their restaurant waiter had an exceptional memory for what everyone at the table had ordered, despite never writing anything down. However, it later emerged that he only retained the information until each table left. After this, he would have little or no memory of the customers, which table they had been sat at, or what they had ordered.
According to Zeigarnik’s research, an unfinished task will remain prominent in our minds because we know that we have left it incomplete. Zeigarnik explained that each task we start produces a form of psychological tension.
In 1928, Ovsiankina found that, compared to a task that has not yet been started, individuals have a stronger urge to complete interrupted or unfinished assignments.
Follow the ten minute rule.
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