In many ways, I am my own worst enemy. Because there is effectively no one else to hold me accountable, I am solely responsible for ensuring that I stay on track and get the job done. I am both the person who sets the expectations and the person who is expected to fulfill them. And this lends itself to a grand internal conflict. It’s a problem I experience practically every night and it can be explained, at least in part, by the Zeigarnik effect.

What Is the Zeigarnik Effect?

The idea behind the Zeigarnik effect, named after early 20th century Russian psychiatrist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, is that we tend to remember the things we don’t complete (or the tasks that are otherwise interrupted) better than we remember the things we do complete. One explanation for this phenomenon is that after we’ve finished something, we don’t think about it anymore. When something is incomplete, we try to retain it in our working memory so that we can remember to finish it.

The story goes that Zeigarnik was at a restaurant and she noticed that the servers possessed the uncanny ability to remember complex orders and they were able to keep track of who hadn’t paid yet. After the food was made and the customers paid, these same servers had a much more difficult time remembering the details of each order. Out of sight, out of mind. I’ve got other things to worry about.

There’s a great article on Good Therapy that discusses this a little further. You can observe the Zeigarnik effect in action every day. Trailers entice us to watch the whole movie. Cliffhangers at the end of episodes tempt us to tune in next week. And clickbait titles on the Internet “trick” us into seeing what the content is really about.

You won’t believe what happens next.

Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Program

So, what does this have to do with expectations and the internal conflict that plagues me almost every night? I know that I have a notoriously poor memory and that’s why I feel compelled to write everything down. If I don’t write it down, I probably won’t remember it. That’s why I rely on to-do lists (and redundant ones at that) to keep track of what I need to do.

But one of the biggest challenges with to-do lists is that I almost always face an uncompleted list at the end of the day. As I gaze down at those items lacking checkmarks next to them, I feel the full brunt of my crushing failure. The thing is that I brought this crushing failure upon myself.

I can be overly optimistic or ambitious (gotta embrace that hustle life, right?) at the beginning of the day (or the night before) when I put together the list of tasks for the day. I delude myself into thinking I can accomplish more than what is reasonable and then I succumb to the pitfall of adding more items as the day goes on. I stack the odds against me, so of course there are items left undone.

And then I remember these incomplete tasks as I finally give up for the night and go to bed. And then I remember them when I wake up the next morning, recognizing what is “left over” from the day before. Oh, but how easily I forget about the items I did manage to tick off the to-do list…

Establishing the Right Expectations

The general recommendation for overcoming this sense of inevitable defeat and failure, as I understand it, is to limit the number of tasks on your to-do list to no more than five items. They say you should have between three and five things on there each day; it’s substantial enough to feel like I’m being productive and it’s modest enough to be reasonably manageable.

If only life were so simple.

As I’m sure you recognize, not all tasks are made equal; some are far easier to accomplish than others. For instance, this year I endeavored to post one new photo to Instagram every day. This is (usually) less work and less time-consuming than if I said I wanted to write a product review. The latter is far more involving, between testing, photos, writing, formatting and the rest of it. Maybe the answer is to offer a decent range of difficulty between those five allotted tasks.

But even then, I will always feel like I could do more. And by establishing circumstances where I am expected to do more, I will forever be at the mercy of the Zeigarnik effect. Maybe I need to cut myself some slack after the order has been filled and the check has been paid. Next!