Ever get a song in your head that keeps popping up? Some psychologists have called this an “ear worm,” which fortunately is perfectly harmless.
An ear worm is an example of your unconscious mind jumping into the life of your conscious mind. Let me give you a bigger example.
Many years ago, a large group of psychologists went to dinner. They each ordered something different but the waiter did not write down one thing. And yet, the waiter got every order perfect.
After the meal one of the psychologists went back into the restaurant and asked the waiter a question about a recipe for one of the meals. To the psychologist's surprise (figuring the waiter had some kind of photographic memory), the waiter couldn’t even recall serving the dish the psychologist was asking about.
One of the diners, a psychologist named Bluma Zeignarik, needed to understand how the waiter could be so precise on each order and then 30 minutes later barely remember serving the meals. She concluded that once the waiter’s brain checked off a task – serving the meal – it moved on. His brain was now on to its next task.
Zeigarnik's subsequent research found that the unconscious mind will hold onto a task until it is completed. That is why the need to finish specific chores will keep popping into your mind until completed. But then Zeigarnik discovered something else that can be helpful to all of us.
She asked a large group of people to make a list of the five things they needed to get done in the next week. She then divided them into Group A and Group B. The members of Group A were instructed to make a specific plan for accomplishing each items on their to-do lists. The members of Group B were not similarly instructed.
Over the ensuing 24 hours, members of Group A and Group B were monitored. They were asked to make a note every time a thought popped into their head, reminding them of an unfinished chore. Zeigarnik was surprised to learn that while Group B members had trouble concentrating for any period of time without some item of unfinished business popping into their consciousness, the same was not true of Group A. Zeigarnik realized that the simple act of making a plan had mollified the unconscious mind of the Group A members. Their unconscious was satisfied. But not so for the members of Group B.
What is the lesson? For whatever reason, your unconscious mind keeps track of your open items. It wants you to accomplish them, and it will nag you until you do. But if you simply take the first step in achieving these items – by making a specific plan to do so – you will not only be on your way to getting done what you need to, you will also earn a little peace of mind as your unconscious mind will give your conscious mind a break.