Frederik Van Lierde

The Zeigarnik Effect Explained for Startup Success

Having a hard time keeping things moving with your startup? Check out how the Zeigarnik Effect can turn your never-ending task list into a real boost for getting stuff done and coming up with new ideas. The Zeigarnik Effect Explained for Startup Success
Starting a new venture can be as thrilling as it is challenging. Every startup founder knows the struggle of juggling tasks, from pitching to investors, developing a product, to building a customer base and let us not forget marketing.

In the middle of all this chaos, there's a cool mind trick that could really help you out: it's called the Zeigarnik Effect. What is the Zeigarnik effect and how it can really make a difference for go-getters starting their own businesses.

What's the Zeigarnik Effect?

Think about starting your own tech company. You begin working on a cool project, maybe developing an app, and out of the blue, you have to hit the brakes. Now, it's like a song stuck in your head. You just can't wait to get back to it and see it through to the end. This feeling, that push to finish what you've begun, is what they call the Zeigarnik Effect.

Named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a psychologist who first studied the phenomenon, it highlights our brain's tendency to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than those we've finished.

Advantages of the Zeigarnik Effect for Startups

For anyone starting their own business, it feels like a never-ending race with a bunch of half-done tasks. Maybe there's a feature of your product that's not quite right yet, a deal that's up in the air, or a marketing plan you've only started to sketch out. In all this, there's a neat trick called the Zeigarnik Effect that can really make a difference.
  1. Enhanced Focus: It helps in keeping tasks on your radar, especially in the early stages when resources are scarce, and you're wearing multiple hats.
  2. Boost in Motivation: The desire to complete tasks can drive you forward, turning procrastination into productivity. It's about harnessing that itch for closure to propel you through the myriad challenges of startup life.
  3. Improved Problem-Solving: When tasks you haven't finished keep popping up in your thoughts, your brain keeps working on them in the background. This means you might find yourself coming up with clever ideas or solutions at random times, even when you're not sitting down trying to solve those problems.

How to Use It to Your Advantage

  • Break Big Tasks into Smaller Ones: By creating a series of incomplete tasks, you'll feel a constant push to move forward. It's the momentum you need to keep going.
  • Keep a Visible To-Do List: Let those unfinished tasks stare you down. The visual reminder will fuel your desire to cross them off the list.
  • Allow Interruptions Wisely: Sometimes, stepping away from a task before it's done can reignite your motivation and bring fresh perspectives when you return to it.

Pitfalls to look out for using the Zeigarnik Effect

While the Zeigarnik Effect can be a powerful motivator for startup founders, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for:
  1. Overwhelm and Burnout: If you're constantly focusing on unfinished tasks, it's easy to become overwhelmed. This constant pressure to complete tasks can lead to burnout, especially if you don't balance it with rest and moments of satisfaction from completing tasks.
  2. Quality vs. Quantity: The urge to close open loops might push you to rush through tasks just to get them off your mind. This can compromise the quality of your work, leading to solutions that are quick but not necessarily the best.
  3. Procrastination Paradox: Ironically, while the Zeigarnik Effect can boost motivation to finish tasks, it can also lead to procrastination. If a task seems too daunting, the desire to avoid the discomfort of an open loop might lead you to put off starting it in the first place.
  4. Decision Fatigue: Juggling multiple unfinished tasks can lead to decision fatigue. Constantly thinking about what to tackle next and how to approach each task can drain your energy and reduce your ability to make clear, strategic decisions.
  5. Neglecting the Big Picture: Focusing too much on individual tasks can cause you to lose sight of the overall vision and strategy of your startup. It's important to occasionally step back and ensure that your efforts are aligned with your long-term goals.
Handling those pitfalls, finding a good balance is key. Make a list of what's most important to do first, take breaks when you need them, give yourself a pat on the back for finishing things, and don't lose sight of your big goals.

5 Quick Steps to Apply the Zeigarnik Effect

  1. Break Down Your Goals: Start by chopping up big projects into smaller, bite-sized tasks. This makes it easier to tackle them one by one and keeps your mind actively working on closing these open loops.
  2. Keep a Visible Task List: Write down your tasks on a sticky note, a whiteboard, or a digital app where you can see them often. The visual reminder of what needs to be done can spur you to action.
  3. Set Time for Intentional Breaks: Work on a task for a set period, then take a deliberate break, leaving the task unfinished. This break will make your brain itch to get back and finish the job, increasing your focus and creativity when you do.
  4. Celebrate Small Wins: Every time you complete a task, take a moment to celebrate. This could be something as simple as ticking off a box, enjoying a cup of coffee, or taking a quick walk. Celebrating progress keeps you motivated.
  5. Reflect at the End of the Day: Spend a few minutes each evening reflecting on the tasks you've completed and what's still open. This not only helps you plan for the next day but also keeps your mind subconsciously working on unfinished tasks overnight.

Zeigarnik Effect and well-known companies

In each of the following cases, the founders faced incomplete tasks or projects that stayed in their minds, pushing them to continue working on them.
  1. Twitter: Originally part of a larger project called Odeo, the idea for what would become Twitter emerged during a brainstorming session. The concept of creating a short messaging platform stayed with the founders, nagging at them until they decided to focus exclusively on it. The persistent thought of this unfinished project likely kept pushing them to refine and launch Twitter, turning it into the global platform it is today.
  2. Slack: Slack started as an internal tool for a gaming company, Tiny Speck, during the development of their game, Glitch. When the game didn't take off as hoped, the team felt an unresolved urge to do something with the communication tool they'd developed. This drive to complete what they started led to the pivot towards Slack, now a major player in business communication.
  3. Amazon: When Jeff Bezos started Amazon, it was just an online bookstore. However, the vision was always bigger. The unfinished business of transforming how retail works in general kept him and his team pushing boundaries. This drive led to Amazon expanding into selling virtually everything and innovating with services like cloud computing through AWS.
  4. Airbnb: The idea for Airbnb arose from a need to cover rent, but the founders didn't stop there. The nagging feeling that this concept could be more than just a way to earn some extra money led them to turn it into a global platform for short-term rentals. The constant push to improve and expand their service turned Airbnb into a household name.
  5. Google: Started as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google was initially just one of many attempts to improve internet search. The founders' relentless drive to refine their search algorithms and make information universally accessible and useful kept them going. This ongoing task of improving search and expanding into new areas has made Google the tech giant it is today.


  1. Use Unfinished Tasks to Your Advantage: Breaking big projects into smaller, manageable pieces can help keep you motivated and focused. This method keeps the momentum going and nudges you to keep moving forward.
  2. Keep Your To-Do List in Sight: Having a list of things you still need to do right where you can see it helps you stay on track and decide what to tackle next.
  3. Don't Forget to Take Breaks: It's really helpful to break tasks down to boost productivity, but remember to take it easy sometimes. This way, you avoid feeling too stressed and ensure you're doing your best work.