I picked this nugget up while reading Deep Work, by Cal Newport.
The Zeigarnik Effect describes the effect of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.
Newport introduces this effect in the context of discussing the processing powers of the conscious and subconscious minds. He says it’s important to ‘shut down’ (the conscious mind) routinely – both for the sake of resting the conscious mind AND in order to let the subconscious mind do it’s work; the brain literally needs to switch modes of thinking.
Some tasks require deep focus of the conscious mind – like writing and math. Other things are more complex and can be better solved by the subconscious mind.
Note: I recently read that our conscious mind can process 32 bits of information at one time and our subconscious mind can process BILLIONS of information at once! (Source: Stealing Fire).
Newport suggests we are prone to leave action items open, or incomplete. They then dominate our attention. I know I’ve experienced this — processing the same to-do over-and-over. This is the Zeigarnik Effect.
Newport describes how he shuts down work each evening. He closes up action items and writes up the plan for the next day. This helps to turn off the conscious mind.
Incomplete tasks both dominate our attention AND (therefor) rob you of the ability to switch modes; they wear down your conscious processing mind AND they prevent you from using your supercomputer — the subconscious mind. So, beware the Zeigarnik Effect!