Nearly a century ago there was a grand café near the University of Berlin.
Academic psychologists who took lunch there marveled at the memory of one of the waiters: no matter how large the group and how complex the order, he could keep it all in his head.
Then one day, or so the story goes, someone left a coat behind. He hurried back into the café, only to find that the waiter didn’t remember him.
This feat of amnesia seemed almost as remarkable as the feat of recollection that had preceded it.
But the waiter had no trouble explaining the discrepancy: “When the order has been completed, then I can forget it.”
Two of the psychologists in the group, Kurt Lewin and Bluma Zeigarnik, decided to investigate.
In 1927, Zeigarnik published research demonstrating that people had a much greater recall of uncompleted tasks than completed ones — a finding that became known at the Zeigarnik effect.
Do you lie awake at night churning through everything you’ve promised yourself you’ll do? That’s the Zeigarnik effect tormenting you.
The blessed release of forgetting comes only when you, like the waiter, know the task is complete.
That brings me to the pandemic, which has done nothing to reduce the number of our sleepless nights.
Some of us have children to homeschool. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question.
Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs.
One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is being turned upside down.
It’s a strange time, but some of the anxiety can be soothed by harnessing the Zeigarnik effect.
Our stress levels are rising in part because that long list of things to do that we all carry around — on paper, digitally, or in our heads — has been radically rearranged.
It’s as though the Berlin waiter had, mid-order, been asked also to chop onions, answer the phone and draft a shopping list.
Simple jobs such as getting a haircut or buying toilet paper now require planning.
Paperwork has multiplied, from claiming refunds on cancelled holidays to writing letters of condolence.
Many of us have intimidating new responsibilities, notably the guilt-inducing task of organising our children’s home schooling.
In many cases, the old tasks haven’t even been cancelled, merely postponed, with delivery dates to be confirmed.
Our subconscious keeps interrupting with reminders of incomplete — sometimes incompletable — tasks.
No wonder we feel anxious.
Fortunately, the psychologists E J Masicampo and Roy Baumeister have found that a task doesn’t have to have been completed to trigger that pleasant slate-wiping forgetfulness.
*Featured post photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash