Berlin, 1927: A group of university students and professors visit a restaurant. The waiter takes order upon order, including special requests, but does not bother to write anything down. This is going to end badly, they think. But, after a short wait, all diners receive exactly what they ordered. After dinner, outside on the street, Russian psychology student Bluma Zeigarnik notices that she has left her scarf behind in the restaurant. She goes back in, finds the waiter with the incredible memory, and asks him if he has seen it. He stares at her blankly. He has no idea who she is or where she sat. “How can you have forgotten?” she asks indignantly. “Especially with your super memory!” The waiter replies curtly: “I keep every order in my head—until it is served.”
Zeigarnik and her mentor, Kurt Lewin, studied this strange behavior and found that all people function more or less like the waiter. We seldom forget uncompleted tasks; they persist in our consciousness and do not let up, tugging at us like little children, until we give them our attention. On the other hand, once we’ve completed a task and checked it off our mental list, it is erased from memory.
The researcher has lent her name to this: Scientists now speak of the Zeigarnik effect. However, in her investigation, she uncovered a few untidy outliers: Some people kept a completely clear head even if they had dozens of projects on the go. Only in recent years could Roy Baumeister and his research team at Florida State University shed light on this. He took students who were a few months away from their final examinations and split them into three groups. Group 1 had to focus on a party during the current semester. Group 2 had to concentrate on the exam. Group 3 had to focus on the exam and also create a detailed study plan. Then Baumeister asked students to complete words under time pressure. Some students saw “pa . . .” and filled in “panic,” while others thought of “party” or “Paris.” This was a clever method of finding out what was on each of their minds. As expected, group 1 had relaxed about the upcoming exam, while students in group 2 could think of nothing else. Most astonishing was the result from group 3. Although these students also had to focus on the upcoming exam, their minds were clear and free from anxiety. Further experiments confirmed this. Outstanding tasks gnaw at us only until we have a clear idea of how we will deal with them. Zeigarnik mistakenly believed that it was necessary to complete tasks to erase them from memory. But it’s not; a good plan of action suffices.
David Allen, the author of a best-selling book aptly entitled Getting Things Done, argues that he has one goal: to have a head as clear as water. For this, you don’t need to have your whole life sorted into tidy compartments. But it does mean that you need a detailed plan for dealing with the messier areas. This plan must be divided into step-by-step tasks and preferably written down. Only when this is done can your mind rest. The adjective “detailed” is important. “Organize my wife’s birthday party” or “find a new job” are worthless. Allen forces his clients to split such projects into twenty to fifty individual tasks.
It’s worth noting that Allen’s recommendation seems to fly in the face of the planning fallacy (chapter 91): the more detailed our planning, the more we tend to overlook factors from the periphery that will derail our projects. But here is the rub: If you want peace of mind, go for Allen’s approach. If you want the most accurate estimate on cost, benefit, and duration of a project, forgot your detailed plan and look up similar projects. If you want both, do both.
Fortunately, you can do all this yourself with the aid of a decidedly low-tech device. Place a notepad by your bed. The next time you cannot get to sleep, jot down outstanding tasks and how you will tackle them. This will silence the cacophony of inner voices. “You want to find God, but you’re out of cat food, so create a plan to deal with it,” says Allen. His advice is sound, even if you have already found God or have no cat.