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The Zeigarnik Effect: Why You Should Let Your Mind Wander at Work

Topics: Data & Research
Zeigarnik Effect
Joshua Earle/Unsplash

Stuck on a tricky problem? Focusing too keenly on it might work against you. To find a solution, suggests productivity researcher Chris Bailey, let your mind wander.

Bailey, the author of Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, ran a year-long project in which he conducted dozens of productivity experiments. The aim: to figure out how to manage our attention in order to be more effective.

He discovered that focusing persistently on a tough problem might not be the best way to solve it.

In an excerpt published at Fast Company, Bailey explains:

Chances are you’ve experienced a few eureka moments. Maybe they struck while you were taking a shower, getting the mail, or walking through an art gallery. Your brain suddenly found the solution to a problem you hadn’t thought about in a few hours. In that instant, the puzzle pieces satisfyingly slid together and locked into place.

Two things were likely true in that moment: First, your insight was a response to a problem you’d been stuck on. Second, your mind was likely wandering while you did something that didn’t require your full attention. I call this mode of mind wandering “scatterfocus.”

How the Zeigarnik Effect Helps You Solve Problems

Why does a wandering mind sometimes find answers? Thank the Zeigarnik Effect. Named for its discoverer, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, this concept refers to the tendency of the brain to remember unfinished tasks.

“The Zeigarnik Effect suggests that not finishing a task creates mental tension, which keeps it at the forefront of our memory,” writes Sarah Young at The Independent. “The only thing that will relieve this tension? Closure brought on by completion of the task.”

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Stuck on a tricky problem? To find a solution, let your mind wander.” quote=”Stuck on a tricky problem? To find a solution, let your mind wander.”]

In other words, when you temporarily take leave of a tricky problem to do other things, it stays with you. That enables your brain to connect new information with the problem, thus making it easier to solve.

“When doing something mindless and habitual, potential insight triggers come from two places: our wandering minds and the external environment,” Bailey writes.

He gives the example of finding the solution to a specific problem while alphabetizing books. The Zeigarnik Effect connects the new activity with the unfinished problem, which is still in the front of your mind.

So, the next time you’re having trouble solving a problem, take a break and focus on something mindless. Clean out your inbox. Tidy up your desk. Organize your files. You might just find the solution to whatever you’re struggling with. (Plus: you’ll be able to cross some mindless busywork off your to-do list.)

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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