Actionable Ideas #8: Zeigarnik Effect, Preventable Problems, 21 Times

In these actionable ideas articles, I highlight three ideas that you can convert into immediate action to drive meaningful value in your work and life.

How can we leverage unfinished business to be more productive? How do we improve our problem solving skills by focusing on problem prevention? and why should we aim to repeat ourselves 21 times to get a point across? Let’s dive in:

Idea #1: Zeigarnik Effect aka Unfinished Business

Themes: productivity

The Zeigarnik Effect states that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Dr. Z coined the effect when she was dining and noticed the waitstaff’s ability to recall long lists of unfinished orders, but unable to remember any of the completed orders. The idea is that the mind develops a task-specific tension that allows that unfinished task to stay top of mind more than completed tasks.

Action item: after you’ve completed a task, start the next task and then stop. This trick is often used by writers to keep the momentum going for their next writing session – after finishing writing a page, start the next one and then stop while it’s incomplete. This will be a jumping off point for when you come back to write.

Idea #2: Preventable Problems Paradox

Themes: problem solving, process, culture


The preventable problems paradox states that any complex organization will over time tend to incentivize problem creation more than problem prevention. Articulated by Shreyas Doshi in this fantastic twitter thread, he states that this is largely because problem prevention is often not visible or feels boring, while problem solving is very visible and feels critical.

Action item: promote a culture of pre-mortems so that you are consistently thinking about future problem prevention. Bake it into the initial part of any task or project, alongside the initial problem you are trying to solve. Do this both in work and your personal life so that you are thinking through every dimension of your execution plan.

Idea #3: 21 Times Rule

Themes: communication, influence, alignment, culture

UNH Connect - Online - February Career Speakers Series

In her book Rise, Patty Azzarello writes “there is a well tested marketing principle… for your audience to understand and internalize your message well enough to act on it, it takes them hearing or seeing your message seven times. And for every one time they see or hear it, they have to be exposed to it three times. That’s 21 times!” In order to drive a point home, you must over-communicate. Use spaced repetition to get your point across and inspire action in others. 

Action item: remember this rule as you try to socialize and communicate an idea to an audience. Maybe it is a new project that just started – make sure its known, bring it up as often as possible, but of course do this tactfully. 21 is a rough guideline, the key here is to over communicate with the understanding that most people forget (or weren’t paying attention the first time!) You can follow Patty’s playbook here


There may be opportunity to combine and play around with these. For example, maybe you can harness the Zeigarnik Effect and keep incomplete tasks top of mind for your team, while also communicating the core strategy with the 21 times rule. You may also be able to make a culture of pre-mortems top of mind with the 21 times rule, and avoid the preventable problems paradox.