You want to be productive. Software wants to help. But even with a glut of tools claiming to make us all into taskmasters, we almost never master our tasks.
In the 1920s, the German psychologist Kurt Lewin was dining in a restaurant and noticed something remarkable. As one version of the story goes, Lewin realized that the waiters were able to meticulously recall specific food orders—until they’d served the food and the customer was gone. After that, they couldn’t remember any of those details at all. Lewin’s student, a Soviet psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik, became fascinated by this phenomenon. She started working on it in her lab. In a now classic set of experiments, she gave volunteers a series of tasks (assemble a cardboard box, make a figure out of clay, do some arithmetic). Then she’d interrupt them, checking to see what the volunteers actually remembered.
Zeigarnik found a quirk of the human mind: When a task is unfinished, we can’t seem to stop thinking about it. We perseverate. Psychologists still argue about why; possibly it’s a kind of constant refresh to keep whatever’s pending from vanishing from our short-term memory, like putting something by the front door at night so you don’t forget to take it with you the next morning.
Whatever the cause, today this is known as the Zeigarnik effect, and psychologists who study task management say it’s part of why so many of us feel perpetually frazzled by the challenge of organizing work and life. When we face all that undone stuff—emails to write, calls to return, people to contact, friends to check in on, memos to draft, children to help—it’s like being a waiter serving a hundred tables at once. If you’ve found yourself in bed at 2 am with your brain screaming at you about that thing you didn’t do, that’s a Zeigarnik moment.