ADHD ABC|Z is for Zeigarnik Effect: Make Distraction Work for You!

What the Heck is the Zeigarnik Effect?

Bluma Zeigarnik Have you ever been interrupted so often that you don’t know what to start first, next or last? You’re about to make some copies for a lesson you’re teaching the next day, but a coworker stops by crying, and then you look up at the clock, just in time to pick up your toddler at daycare, so that you don’t pay the dollar a minute fine. During your drive to work the next day, you don’t remember all the tasks you completed right before your coworker-in-crisis ran up to your door. Yet you sure remember that you need to do that photocopying!

One day during your prep period, you zoom through all but one task on your to-do list… you were about to call a court social worker back, when a huge fight breaks out in the hallways,  and another kiddo pulls the fire alarm. When your husband asks you what you did that day, nothing stands out except the hallway tussle and the fire alarm pulling prank. And..drats, you didn’t get to make that phone call. That’s the Zeigarnik Effect.

This phenomenon first studied by Lithuanian-born Jewish psychiatrist and psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik. While chilling in a Viennese cafe back in 1927, she noticed that waiters remembered incompleted orders as long as they were in the process of being filled, but forgot them right after they served.

Experience of the Zeigarnik Effect

As a mom and a teacher, I experience the Zeigarnik effect all the time, and I’m sure you do, too. I take the sweet potatoes out of the oven, turn on the dishwasher, and start to fold laundry. Then my daughter hollers for me from her room. The laundry-folding task looms above me like a grumpy cloud, but I have no recollection of the other chores I completed earlier.

(Because of the Zeigarnik Effect, that’s why you think you accomplished nothing all day, when in reality, you did–you just remember the tasks that you started and stopped all day).

If you work in a cubicle, you get zeigarniked (as I like to say) all day long–you start working on a project, then Herman the Time Hog lumbers up to your chair asking about data or Mediocre Mergatroid asks you to redo the curriculum for your training because it’s just not rigorous enough.

Using Zeigarnik Effect as a Teacher with ADHD

Interruptions zap my day like a meteor shower, plus I get zippy ideas all day long (and night, which is why I have a journal next to my bed). Anyhow, here are three tools you can use to make distraction work for you.

1. The Old Fashioned Sticky Note This is the good part! Pay close attention so that you don’t end up in sticky note hell. zeigarnik2 Grab sticky notes and smack them on a clipboard. A clipboard gives you immediate authority and then you can write your zippy ADHD thoughts down to your heart’s content.

Use ! to indicate a thought or tangential thought that you need to put in a mental parking lot (it could be a new invention, or to remind yourself to pick up dry cleaning, etc.)



Use ? to indicate a question you’re wondering about- or that you need to ask someone something.


2. Evernote

Use the Evernote app, downloadable in IPhone, IPad, Android, as well as a Google App for the desktop. I have used this app to do everything from take pictures of chalk talk, the board, writing a to-do list to share with my husband, to documenting graffiti (it can time and date stamp).  It will also automatically categorize notes by tags and categories. Great way to sort out ideas in that ADHD brain.


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