There are different schools of thought when it comes to defining what constitutes a good study session. For some, it could involve staying focused in deep work for long periods of time. Others may require regular breaks. And while study breaks are usually intended to give you a chance to reset and refresh,in some cases, they can be used to propel you to work even harder. This is related to a phenomenon called called the Zeigarnik effect, and if you struggle to focus or feel bad when you don’t finish a study session, you could make it work for you.
What is the Zeigarnik effect?
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This effect is named for the psychologist who noticed it, Bluma Zeigarnik. It refers to the ease of recall you may experience when considering an activity that was somehow interrupted. It works like this: Once you start a task, your brain establishes some tension around it to improve cognitive functioning related to accomplishing it, so you can work on it to the best of your ability. That tension is broken when the task is done, but if you don’t finish, the tension remains.
You might notice this in a negative way in your everyday life. When you have a big task, like studying for a test or cleaning your house, and you don’t finish it, it can bother you in the back of your mind until it’s done. When tapping into the Zeigarnik effect, you take control of that nagging feeling and use it to your advantage. What makes this approach special is that you can reframe procrastination and tap into its benefits, instead of getting bogged down by it—and if you have a variety of subjects to study, it’s particularly helpful.
How to use the Zeigarnik effect when studying
When you’re studying something, you can employ the Zeigarnik effect just by switching tasks for a bit. The best way to do this is to do something totally unrelated, like study another subject altogether or working on another responsibility you have. Maybe you’ve been putting off calling your mom or doing the dishes? Cross it off your list about halfway through your study session.
By adding in that pause for unrelated work, you maintain that sense of cognitive tension related to the primary task, which is studying. That can actually helps your recall of the details of the material, so you won’t forget them as quickly as you normally would. Zeigarnik came up with her original theory after watching servers in a restaurant who remembered orders that were in progress, but seemed to totally forgot the orders as soon as they were complete. The longer something goes unfinished, the better you can recall it.
Since the effect was first studied, further research has found that other factors impact recall associated with uncompleted tasks. For instance, you’ll have better recall if you’re motivated to do the task. That’s what makes this method solid for studying, especially: You’re motivated by the threat of a bad grade, or the promise of a good one, which adds to the tension in your mind. To benefit from it, try spreading your study sessions across multiple days leading up to a test, never fully completing the studying until the night before, when you do a big review. During that review, use a method like blurting to take stock of everything you remember about the material off the top of your head, then go back and reread anything you were still stuck on.