Language can be thought of as a tool that simplifies experience.” -Pennebaker

I’ve been reading a lot of books this year, committed to the task of writing one myself. Quite a few of these books have been on productivity. I kept coming across this weird Z word I couldn’t pronounce (Zee-Grr-nick), and kept telling myself I’d come back to it. Well, the productivity research is through, and I’m in the midsts of writing an ebook on Expressive Writing. While researching for this, I saw Zeigarnik again, and I could not longer ignore it. After reading this, I hope you’ll be leverage it in your life.

To quote Cal Newport;

This effect, which is named for the experimental work of the early twentieth-century Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.

The Zeigarnik effect is both a productivity hack and the reason why Expressive Writing helps us process trauma.

The Zeigarnik Effect as Productivity Hack 

In Baumeister’s Willpower, and Cal Newport’s Deep Work, they both explore and explain how leveraging the Z effect can improve productivity. Both books show that when we engage in a task and are interrupted, the task begins to infiltrate our consciousness.

The example we’ve all experienced are earworms. We hear a bad song, we turn it off or switch stations, and the song is stuck in our head. The way to get rid of an earworm elegantly demonstrates the Zeigarnik effect; either listen to the song the whole way through, or whistle the end of the tune.

This effect is also the essence of the famous productivity book Getting Things Done. David Allen finds that the average client he works with has up to 150 “open loops.” These are tasks they know they need to do, but haven’t dealt with yet. Take a moment and try to imagine how cognitively heavy that must feel. Now take a mental step back, how many open loops do you have?

Allen suggests writing all open loops down in one massive brain dump. Then he teaches how to process them, and this processing is the secret to leveraging the Zeigarnik Effect to increase productivity. Even if we don’t act on a open loop, if we make a plan for how to handle it, our cognition is released from the burden, and we improve our working memory. Baumeister explains;

Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”

When we write down all our tasks and open loops, and write a plan of action for them, we resolve the mental burden they held and we are able to focus more deeply. But, it gets so much more interesting when you explore the Zeigarnik effect from the lens of a therapist.

Zeigarnik Effect as Healing Mechanism in Expressive Writing 

Expressive Writing is a technique developed by James Pennebaker to help people process traumatic experiences. Since his first study in the 1980s, over 300 studies have been published and the positive effects of this simple technique are robust and valid.

You can expect an increase in immune function, self-reported life satisfaction, sleep quality, academic performance, and you’ll visit the doctor less. What the expressive writing community doesn’t agree on is how exactly expressive writing causes these changes.

James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth in Opening Up by Writing It Down, suggest that the Zeigarnik Effect is the how.

In the productivity studies, unresolved tasks needing to be completed in the future disrupts the conscious mind in the present; in those who have experienced trauma (and most of us have), what determines whether a memory is unresolved depends on understanding and meaning.

Translating a phenomenon, particularly a complex one (like trauma), into clear language fundamentally alters the way it is represented and understood in our minds.” -Pennebaker

Most people do not share their trauma. Their trauma is often explicit images and emotions. When we write, the very act of putting it into words begins to change the memory. Our writing about trauma starts to organize the event(s). The more we write, eventually a story structure emerges, and with that comes a narrative, and narratives give meaning.

It follows that translating abstract thoughts and emotions associated with a traumatic event into written words with a linguistic structure may allow for the traumatic event to be better understood and integrated into one’s understanding of “self” and the world.” -Pennebaker


To improve your productivity, write down all tasks you need to complete and spend 10-20 minutes writing about how you will complete them. This will free up working memory and you will be able to concentrate and enter flow more easily. To heal from traumatic experiences through expressive writing, write about your trauma in a narrative/story structure. This will help you assimilate the trauma into the story of your life and this will improve your mental and physical health.

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