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How does the Zeigarnik effect apply to global assignment management?

The Zeigarnik Effect

In 1927 in the journal Psychologische Forschung, a Lithuanian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik first published her research on what occurs when the brain more readily recalls an interrupted task than a completed one. Known as the Zeigarnik effect, the research explains that unfinished tasks create mental tension, which impact how well people perform other tasks in the meantime. The tension is relieved upon completion of the task but persists if it is interrupted. Planning seems to help the brain let go of the cognitive tension from unfinished tasks thereby creating room to accomplish new tasks and be more productive. 

An oldie but a goodie!

Whether or not you've heard of this interesting psychological phenomenon, it's an interesting one to use as a lens for looking at global mobility processes. We've even talked about it in a pre-pandemic post, "Considering the Zeigarnik effect on the relocation experience", where we defined the effect, provided information on the research, and explained using examples of how this effect impacts the global mobility realm. 

Considering the impact of the effect

Consider this information presented by

"The Zeigarnik effect can play an important role in a person’s mental health. Incomplete tasks, particularly those with negative consequences, often lead to frequent and stressful intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can reduce sleep, promote anxiety, and further deplete a person’s mental and emotional resources, possibly even contributing to maladaptive behaviors.

How does the Zeigarnik effect play out in global mobility?

Whether you are an expat (or family member) heading off on an international assignment, or the mobility manager responsible for making sure both the company and the employee are taken care of, there are an extreme number of tasks to handle before, during, and after an assignment. Without a plan, the entire idea could be completely overwhelming, but with a plan in place as you get started, the Zeigarnik effect kicks in to keep the process moving along. 

Understanding the phenomenon is a great way to better understand the expat experience and can help in providing responsive high-quality service in support of the assignment process. If we know that an expat is going to be spinning on an open loop until it is closed, we can better name the issue and not hold it against their human nature. Then, we might consider adding in steps to make good information available on where things are at in the process, or provide a good understanding of the entire process beyond the current moment. Technology and self-help tools can also go a long way to reducing stress. Additionally, allowing the expat choices and control along the way, with a list of tasks and prompts to support progress on those tasks, can invoke the Zeigarnik effect in a positive way. And if one really large unfinished task is creating major anxiety, prioritize it so that tension can be eliminated.

To learn more about the effect and to capitalize on natural energy cycles and minimize fatigue, try this article from KosmoTime. You can use strategies like the 90/20 rule and the Pomodoro Technique to stay on track and prioritize tasks in a way that works best for everyone. 

The Zeigarnik effect is that tendency of "remembering something just long enough to finish a task, and then completely forgetting" it once the task is completed. It rests on the idea that we seek closure on things, that the brain needs to reach a conclusion before (or so) it can move on. The idea proposes that "our brain focuses on tasks that are unfinished, called open loops," with the goal of closing those loops. Not having the completion leaves us in a state of mental tension. Until the loop is closed, and closure is obtained, the mind keeps coming back to the task(s), compelling us to finish them up. Wondering where you might have seen this at play? It is likely the reason


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