The Hidden Reason Your Mind Feels Cluttered


Have you ever noticed how half-done projects seem to hang out in your brain more than those you’ve completed?

When we finish a task, whether it’s big or small, it quickly leaves our thoughts. But when we leave something unfinished—like a phone call laundry, dirty dishes, or even a puzzle on the kitchen table—it continues to occupy space in our minds, even as we move on to other activities.

There is a name for this. It is called The Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect, named after the Russian psychologist who first noticed it, Bluma Zeigarnik, explains that the human brain tends to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed ones.

Zeigarnik discovered this phenomenon while observing waiters in a busy restaurant. She noticed that they had a remarkable ability to remember unpaid orders, but once the orders were settled, the details quickly faded from their memory.

It’s similar to when you were a student in school and could remember names and dates and facts in preparation for a test. But once the test was over, you’d immediately forget the information. That’s the phenomenon—we tend to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed ones.

In Dr. Zeigarnik’s research, participants were asked to complete simple tasks like solving puzzles or performing routine activities. Some participants were interrupted midway, while others were allowed to complete their tasks. When asked later to recall what they had been doing, those who were interrupted were twice as likely to remember the details of their tasks compared to those who finished them.

This is something that many of us experience every day. And now you have a name for it.

Even better, now that we can recognize the phenomena and call it what it is, we open the doorway to live a less cluttered life with a less cluttered mind. Because we know how to use the effect for good.

Many of us carry the mental burden of unfinished tasks. And rarely do we need to look further than our own home. Whether it’s the cluttered garage, the half-painted room, the pantry that needs to be sorted, the shelf that needs to be dusted, the small repair project that isn’t finished, or that stack of papers on our desk that needs to be filed, these unfinished projects occupy substantial space in our mind.

They don’t weigh on our minds because they are more important than other things—our minds give them extra attention simply because they are undone and feel urgent. And this is so important to understand: The urgent often draws more of our attention than the important.

Our biggest goals—the most important ones—those that result in actual fulfillment, meaning, and significance receive less of our attention because the undone, unfinished projects clutter our mind.

Finish Projects to Clear Your Mind

We can use this knowledge for good. The reason our minds get cluttered is no longer hidden.

By completing projects, we free up mental space that leads to not just less stress, but a better ability to focus on what’s truly important in our lives.

Here are some ways we can accomplish this:

Own Less Stuff

The Zeigarnik Effect applies to projects and principles far bigger than the projects around our homes. But I fear as our homes have increased in size and the number of possessions we keep inside them grows, more and more of our mental energy is being directed toward the items that we own.

The more we own, the more energy and attention our things require. By simply owning less, we naturally reduce the number of unfinished projects at home.

Take Small Steps

Begin by choosing one small project around your home that you started recently and can complete today. Maybe it’s cleaning out a single drawer, organizing a bookshelf, washing the dishes in the sink, or putting away the laundry. If something manageable comes to mind right now, go finish it. Not only will this free up your mind (finally!), it will give you a nice sense of accomplishment and motivate you to tackle larger projects.

Apply the One-Minute Rule

Gretchen Rubin is the person who first introduced me to The One-Minute Rule (and long before I heard about Zeigarnik Effect). The One-Minute Rule is simply this: if something takes less than a minute to complete, do it immediately. This effect explains why the idea is so important and life-changing. It closes the mental loop on unfinished projects.

Create a Routine

Incorporate project completion into your daily (or even weekly) routine. Set aside specific times for tackling unfinished tasks and schedule enough time to fully complete your tasks. For example, I schedule all of my social media for the week on Mondays so that I don’t need to think about it after that day.

And here’s an example from home: When we eat dinner, we consider preparing the food, eating the meal, and cleaning up afterward all part of the same process. Rarely do we move on to a different activity without cleaning the kitchen first. Whenever you create a daily routine, schedule enough time to complete it entirely.

Break Larger Jobs in Smaller Tasks

One of the principles that I teach in the Uncluttered Course is the importance of breaking larger jobs into smaller tasks. Decluttering an entire home is an overwhelming thought for many. Even decluttering one room of a home can be a time-consuming task for a person. But that room can be broken into smaller manageable tasks: one shelf, one drawer, one corner.

There are many projects and dreams in life that take considerable time to complete. But when you break that larger goal into smaller, more manageable tasks, you can complete one step at a time before moving to the next. Using a 3-Item To-Do List every day will help you accomplish that.

Our lives are filled with beautiful and important dreams—goals that will bring us real, lasting joy. By finishing projects (especially those pertaining to household chores and tasks), we declutter our mind and open up the possibility to focus on larger, more meaningful pursuits.

Owning less and living a minimalist lifestyle can make this process even easier. With fewer possessions, there are fewer things to manage and fewer tasks to complete. This leads to a simpler, more intentional life where our time and energy can be directed toward what truly matters.

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