Close laptop prevent zeigarnik effect

Combatting the Zeigarnik Effect: What’s Your Shut Down Ritual?

I hadn’t see my friend, Alan, in weeks. We were catching up over sushi in Ho Chi Minh City, enjoying dinner with a few other friends.

Then, all of a sudden, the conversation turned towards work. It happened so quickly and seamlessly that none of us thought any different. Just another topic.

And yet, after 10 or so minutes of work-related conversation, the vibe of our discussion started to feel a bit too logical. The light-hearted feeling in the room was gone, replaced by super-logical conversation topics.

What happened?

We brought work to the dinner table.

As entrepreneurs, work/life balance can often seem like a distant dream, something that people talk about but never fully achieve. And in fact, most entrepreneurs I know are so in live with their work, it’s never really seen as a negative when bringing up work topics in non-work situations.

Yet, work-life balance is essential to happiness. Giving ourselves time to idle, relax and socialize is essential to recharging our minds and bodies for the next day.

The problem is, work never ends. There are always new projects to tackle and new problems to solve. I find this particularly true for entrepreneurs and business owners.

What happens when a task is left unfinished? It results in an open-loop in our mind, leading to a feeling of incompleteness. This feeling actually has a name: The Zeigarnik Effect. What’s interesting bout the effect is that people tend to remember unresolved tasks better than completed tasks. So even if you finish the day having completed 90% of the work, the 10% you didn’t complete will occupy your mental ram.

To resolve this tension, we bring our work discussions out of the office/cafe/coworking space and into the world, with disastrous effects. A seemingly innocuous conversation over sushi inhibits our ability to “recharge” in between work sessions, can potentially damage relationships, and even lead to depression.

Shut down rituals

You may be thinting that it’s impossible finish each and every task on our plate within a given day. Well, you’re right. But the good news is that you don’t have to.

All you need to do is bring each incomplete task to a level of “satisficing” (satisfy + suffice). Basically, a “good-enough” resting point which tells you’re brain, “I’m done for the day and I’ll finish up tomorrow.”

In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport describes his process for reaching that good enough resting point for the day, with what he calls a Shut Down Ritual. When his workday is over, he says the magic words, “Shudown Complete.” This tells his brain that all the day’s tasks have been reviewed, and new tasks will be taken care of tomorrow.

Simple, yet profound. Think of all the wasted time and lack of engagement we suffer because work creeps into our play time. Think of all the times your work has suffered because you hadn’t taken the time to sufficiently rest and restore your brain.

To build your own Shut Down Ritual, all you need are a few ingredients:

  • Every imcomplete task should be reviewed and captured.
  • Each task should have a “next step” ready to go, OR a reminder to show up where you know you’ll review it (eg, email, Slack, or your calendar)
  • Have a “shut down phrase”, eg “Shutdown, complete!”

That’s all it takes. My shut down phrase is, “I’m done with work for the day. Time to have some fun!”

In doing so, I protect my mind from work creep into other areas of life. I love work, and could talk about it 24/7. But that doesn’t help me relax and unwind at the end of a long day. The end-of-day Shut Down Ritual the barrier between work and play that ensures I get the most value out of both.

One caveat: it takes a few weeks to build the habit and actually be effective. Put simply, your brain won’t shut down until you’ve done it a few times and actually followed through by not touching any work. Give it some time and stick with it to realize the benefits.

Do you have a Shut Down Ritual? Please share it below.