The Ziegarnik Effect: Why you should never just ‘study’ or ‘revise’

Have you ever said to yourself “I really need to study” or “I need to start revising” and days or weeks later you still hadn’t started but it had been weighing heavily on your mind all that time?

The problem with telling yourself to study or revise is that these tasks are too vague and they have no end point to them.

You see, the human mind doesn’t like vague, fuzzy or unfinished things. These things can plague us.

In psychology there’s a term for this – the Zeigarnik effect. This describes the tendency we have to experience intrusive thoughts about something we have started but is still incomplete.

In other words, you are left with this constant sense of worry about things that need to be finished.

As Baumeister and Tierney state in their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” –

“When you try to ignore unfinished tasks, your unconscious keeps fretting about them in the same way that an ear worm keeps playing an unfinished song. You can’t banish them from your brain by procrastinating or by willing yourself to forget them”

Unless you have concrete goals in mind of what you are going to achieve in a study or revision session, you are at risk of experiencing unnecessary worry and depleted cognitive resources.

In a nutshell, the solution is really simple – make a plan or write a list. A micromovement wheel of delight should also do the job.

Researchers Masicampo and Baumeister state in their journal article “Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals” state –

“Once a plan is made, the unconscious knows how and when to act, and so in a sense the uncertainty of the unfinished task is resolved”

Your list or plan must contain specific action steps you need to take. For instance, instead of writing on your list “Study”, you could write “Mind map chapter on the central nervous system” or “Pick up maths book and solve 5 algebraic equations”. If you can specify when and where you’ll do the task that will help too, but it’s not necessary.

So remember, don’t set goals to study or revise. To tell your brain these things is simply asking to bring procrastination and worry into your life. Instead, read a chapter. Get a book from your bag. Write an introductory sentence. Sharpen a pencil. If you can get in the habit of setting clear and simple tasks for yourself, you’ll be better off for it.