The Zeignarik effect explains that we remember undone tasks better than those we've accomplished. This can stall progress by keeping us unfulfilled or mired in regret. If we let the Z-effect motivate us instead, our unfinished business can catapult us into meaningful steps forward.
I've finally figured out why we make New Year's resolutions – yearly. It's the work of a stubborn subconscious phenomenon: the Zeigarnik effect (Z-effect). Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik's research in the 1920s showed that we remember unfinished events better than finished events.
Unfinished events – like the fact that we had promised ourselves to clean out our closet last spring but still haven't, to exercise for 40 minutes four times a week, to scold our children less and love them more, to wash our underwear – tend to prey on our ever-more-cluttered mind. So when the new year comes around, we welcome the chance to rasa that tabula and set things right.
The Z-effect has both negative and positive results.
American psychologist Will Joel Friedman says that the dissonance caused by unfinished business prevents us from living fully in the present moment.
This was evocatively described by poet Robert Service, sitting by the warm fireside at the end of a year, brooding: "I dedicate to solemn thought/ Amid my too-unthinking days,/ This sober moment, sadly fraught/ With much of blame, with little praise."