I cannot forget… or the Zeigarnik effect.

When I was a young teenager, I was quite engrossed with a sci-fi book.

I was comfortable on the couch reading that book when my dad ‘summoned’ me to come with him to visit some distant acquaintance on the other side of town. I agreed with a good dose of teenager begrudging. I consoled myself because I took the book with me to read on the drive there. When we arrived, I took the book inside my dad’s friend house. “Maybe I can discreetly disappear when the adults get busy”, I thought. But I was caught and quickly, ahem, advised to put it down.

When we got back home that night, I discovered to my utter dismay that I had lost the book. It was an obscure novel and, I am sure, very average. I forgot the author, the title, and the image on the cover. I never found the book or a copy.

But decades later, I can still tell you the plot of the story up to the point where I stopped reading.

Such can be the power of unfinished things.

The Zeigarnik effect is the hypothesis that we remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. I find this is true for myself. And I also find, unsurprisingly, that this ability comes at a cost.

Holding on to unfinished things in my memory requires a small ‘trickle charge’ to keep them alive in my psyche. With just a few of those in the back of my mind, I quickly gain some low-grade crankiness and my mental powers feel dulled.

But after I write that thought/action/idea down (in a system I can recall at will) I return 100% of my attention to… well, whatever I am doing. I find that quite powerful and relaxing at the same time.

Last week I was interviewing someone about productivity habits and we both concluded that it is likely that poor memory could be the result of writing things down! If I write down things into a recallable system I trust, I do not need to spend precious mental resources to keep them stored inside my gray matter.

As I type these words, there are on my desk about eight post-it notes (this is part of my system). I wrote most of them in the last 24 hours; I try right now to recall what I wrote, and I just can’t – It feels wonderful.

If you do not do this already, I suggest you give it a try (*). Capture these attention leeches in a system you can recall and review at will – reclaim you all your precious attention for the things that matter.

(*) David Allen (Getting Things Done, 2001) is an extremely clear and useful read if you want some real expert advice on how to get this implemented.