In fact, no one can switch effectively from one topic to another at the drop of a hat. Granted, some will do this better than others, but if anyone thinks they do it well, they are deluding themselves.

The phenomenon behind this is known as the Zeigarnik Effect.  With every interrupted and unresolved task, our conscious mind moves on (or has to move on) to another subject, but the problem gets passed on to the sub-conscious.  Our mind doesn’t like loose ends, and it continues to think about the problem to find a resolution.

This is a fantastic thing.  For example, we often, we often get stuck and can’t recall a name we want to.  Running through the alphabet sometimes works, but generally not.  The best option is often to forget about it for a while and then miraculously, few minutes later the name “pops in to our head”.  In fact the sub-conscious has been furiously digging away to uncover the name and as soon as it’s found it sends the information to our pre-frontal cortex and we become consciously aware of it.


Zeigarnik Effect

This “Zeigarnik Effect” was named after a Russian Psychologist, who noticed that a waiter could remember exactly who had had what around the table, up until the moment the bill was paid. Even just a couple of minutes later the waiter had forgotten pretty much all of the detail, essentially wiping it from his mind.

So our mind doesn’t like loose ends and looks to tie them up, solve the problem and to free up “brain space”, preserving energy usage as quickly as it can.  The brain uses 20% of all the body’s blood sugar, so preserving this energy is a pretty important tactic.  If we have too many things bouncing around our subconscious, then we will quickly start to be overwhelmed and will start to think less effectively as we run low on fuel.  Interestingly (and dangerously) this fall in performance occurs well ahead of our awareness of feeling tired.

Hence, most of us don’t like to have to switch between different topics too often and too quickly – it overloads our subconscious.  It can help, if we artificially close the loop in our brain, and give our sub-conscious permission not to keep working on the problem.  In practice, this simply means writing the thing down (somewhere findable) so that we know we will come back to it and our brain doesn’t need to worry about having to solve the problem now or keeping the information retrievably close.


Click on this link to consider how to reduce interruptions

Click on this link to create more time and space for “Deep Work”