The Zeigarnik Effect and Your UFOs

So…the government is admitting there may be such things as UFOs. 

    Some of us are shouting, “Finally!”  

Others of us are skeptical.  After all, it is the government spreading this information.  

We quilters…we quilters have known all along there were such things as UFOs.  Albeit our UFOs look more like this…  

And less like any flying saucer out there in the vast universe.  For quilters, UFO doesn’t mean Unidentified Flying Object.  It stands for Unfinished Object.  You know – those quilting projects we started and have never finished.  I realize there are other monikers for them.  WIPS (Works in Progress), PIGS (Projects in Grocery Sack), and PITO (Projects in Time Out) are just a few of other titles these unfinished gems fall under.  But I like the term UFO because to me it denotes a project set aside with no definite plans of returning to it.   

However, if you think this blog is one which contains all kinds of tips and tricks about motivating yourself to pull those UFOs out and finish them up…you’re wrong.  At the end of this blog I’ll share how I stay on track to finish my projects, but for right now I want share with you the psychology behind UFOs, and why those UFOs may even be good for your mental health.  

Let’s start at the beginning.  You have a project under your needle.  You’re working diligently on it, plugging away, but the finish line is still weeks from now.  And when the  quilting is added to the time needed to complete the top, the end of the tunnel looks hopelessly far away.  But still you keep working … until something new catches your eye.  It’s shiny and exciting.  The fabric is much prettier than what you’re working with.  The pattern isn’t quite as tedious, either.  The cherry on top is several of your quilting buddies have started this same quilt!  You could join them, and a new quilt bee would be born!  That would be so much more fun than the quilt which is currently seeming to take a hundred years to finish.   

Without much thought, the card or cash comes out, the new pattern and fabric are purchased, and bada-bing, bada-boom you begin on the new, shiny quilt and the other now-tedious one is relegated to one of the many project boxes in your quilt studio.  You enjoy the new quilt – it’s everything you thought it would be – and it’s super fun sewing with your quilting buddies.  However, the nagging thought about the unfinished quilt, the one you already put a lot of time and effort into, sitting in a project box, bothers you.  You’re not sure why, but it does.  It stays on your mind. You promise yourself as soon as this new project is complete, you’ll pull the old one out and finish it up.  

Welcome to the Zeigarnik Effect.  

The Zeigarnik Effect was named for Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.  Bluma was in Vienna for a few years and found herself eating out quite a bit.  As she visited different restaurants, she noticed a phenomena about the waiters.  It seemed to her that if a server was actively waiting a table, they could remember the orders (who got what, etc.), what each person was drinking, and how they preferred the meal prepared.  However, once the table was cashed out, the waiters could remember very little, if anything, about the customers.   

So Bluma mulled this over for a while, returning to various restaurants for a few more weeks and noting that unless there was a major interruption in the process, the waiters could remember very little (if anything) about their customers’ orders once the bill was paid.  She wondered if the same thing would happen to her students.  She gave her pupils a series of tasks to perform and complete.  Some of the tasks involved sequencing objects, basic math equations, and reading comprehension.  With half the students, she made sure their tasks were interrupted frequently and at times for as long as an hour.  The other half were allowed to complete their list of tasks without interruption. The next day she questioned the students about their tasks.  The ones who were allowed to complete their tasks without interruption were not nearly as thorough nor did they remember as much about their tasks as those who were frequently interrupted.  Those students who were pulled away from their tasks not only completed them better, they also were more driven to complete them before they suffered another interruption.  They also could remember in great detail what step they were in the middle of when they were interrupted and could return to that point after the disruption.  The students told Bluma the unfinished task bothered them.  It stayed on their mind until they could return to the classroom to complete it. 

Zeigarnik began to hypothesize that failing to complete a task creates underlying cognitive tension and this results in a greater mental effort to keep the task in the forefront of our minds until it’s complete.  It’s only then we can “let go” of the job.  Of course, motivation and short-term memory can play a part in this Effect, but in most cases, all unfinished tasks are the same.  Including UFOs.  

In other words, if we have a project which is set aside, unfinished, it is more than likely this will bother us to the point we will finish it for no other reason than just to have cognitive relief.  So maybe…just maybe, having a few UFOs laying around isn’t such a bad idea.  They subliminally put pressure on us to finish them.

I realize there are as many ways to handle UFOs as there are quilters.  I know a couple of quilters who finish every quilt they begin – from start to finish – without beginning another quilt.  However, there is a common thread running through these few folks — they also have another hobby in their lives which they are more vested in than quilting. It could be knitting or weaving or stained glass or almost anything else.  But in their vested hobby?  They have several projects underway.  I’m this way with knitting.  I recently learned to knit.  I finish one knitting project at a time before starting the next.  But quilting?  I have four quilts in progress right now.   

Perhaps, in the grand scheme of all quilty things, a few UFOs are good for our mental health.  Now we need to learn how to deal with them by putting Zeigarnik’s Effect into play for our benefit.  Since interrupting a project can cause cognitive tension (i.e. it nags you mentally), the best way to relieve this is by putting the UFO back into play.  And while you may not be on board with finishing the entire project right now, you can take the first step.  This helps you feel better about the situation (relieves some of the cognitive tension) and yourself.  You’ve stopped procrastinating.  The project is technically now not a UFO – you’ve worked on it, and all progress is some progress. As a matter of fact, you may feel so good about this tiny bit of progress, you decide to keep working on the UFO a bit at a time.  Before you know it, it’s no longer a UFO but a full-fledged completed project.   

[Let me pause here and add a personal note.  Some of you have wondered why I leave my studio at night in the middle of a quilt pattern step.  This is the reason.  After a long day at my job, if I had to think through the next part of the pattern, or cut anything out, chances are I would forgo any time in my studio.  I just don’t have the mental energy.  However, if I’ve stopped in the middle of a step, I won’t procrastinate.  I know where I am and can keep working.  And often completing this step spurs me to the next step.]

This next part of the blog is personal.  This is the part where I tell you how I handle my UFOs.  This is a system which has worked for me for years.  However, it may not work for you.  Feel free to take bits and pieces and find a system which works best for you.  

Mentally corralling all my WIPs is emotionally exhausting.  I’m also 61 years old and discovered a few years ago I need to write things down to help me remember them.  At the beginning of each calendar year, I make a list of the UFOs I want to complete (and I mean completely finish – quilted, bound, labeled, and a picture taken).  I list them in the order I want to complete them.  This means I no longer have to remember them and can simply move from one project to the next without over-thinking anything.  And I put the quilt which is closest to completion at the top of the list.  Completing that first project is such a good feeling you want to feel it again (hello dopamine) and  makes you want to finish the next one. 

  I also list a couple of projects I want to begin.  So allow me to park it here and briefly discuss how I prep projects.  I wrote an entire blog about this (, but what it boils down to minimally is I have the quilt completely cut out and have gathered any notions or special thread I may need for the project.  These are put in a project box so I can keep them together.  I also cut out my binding and make my label.  And this is a personal issue.  I have discovered once I am through the quilting process, I am ready to get the quilt trimmed and the binding sewed on.  If I have to stop and make the binding, guess what happens?  That’s right.  It gets set aside, which is a crying shame because I’m so close to completion.  I have always championed quilt labels – they’re so important to a quilt’s legacy.  However, if I don’t have that label ready to go when it’s needed, I waffle about it.  I make the label early, putting all the essential information on it, but ink in my signature and the date completed when I’m ready to sew it on.   

Now I have my Master List (which I keep hanging above my computer…nothing like a little visual reminder), the next step I take is to “chunk” the projects.  I am the type of quilter who can’t work solely on one project at a time.  I tend to keep three in rotation:  a UFO, a new project, and either a hand-pieced or hand applique quilt.  I go through each project and decide what steps need to be taken with each – this is where the term “chunking” comes in, I break the projects into manageable chunks.  This does two things.  First, it stops me from becoming overwhelmed.  Second, it allows me to better plan my time.  Let me also add, I “chunk” my projects on a weekly basis.  Allow me to explain.   

Every Sunday I sit down and make out two “to do” lists – one for the household chores and one for work.  Between the two, I can pretty much discern what days are super-charged and the others which aren’t.  The days I have a lot to do on both lists (usually Monday and Tuesday), I don’t plan on taking on any quilting “chunks” which would encompass a lot of time and mental energy.  I save those for the less busy days or the weekends.  I also make a list of my quilting “chunks” I hope to get accomplished during the week, so I don’t get sidetracked.   I like lists.  They keep me on track.  I also enjoy marking things I get done off my list.  If I get everything done, I reward myself with something I want, like sushi or a specialty coffee from my favorite local coffee shop.   

I hope this blog has done two things.  First, I hope it has freed you from any major guilt you may have about UFOs.  I honestly think they’re part of most quilters’ experience.  Use the cognitive tension they create to your advantage in finishing them.  Find a way which works for you to manage your UFOs and move them out of that category into the Galaxy of Finished Projects.  

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!  

Love and Stitches, Sherri

2 replies on “The Zeigarnik Effect and Your UFOs”

Sherri, an interesting post, as always. Personally, I put aside projects when I get stuck, in the design, construction, quilting, or finishing phase. Sometimes those projects sit for years. Inevitably, because my skills have improved in the intervening months or years, the quilt ends up much better than if I had finished it when I first began working on it. Your habit of having the binding and label done ahead of time is genius!

Thank you! I, too, have put a project in a long-term time out until I felt I had a better grasp on the required skills to complete it. I also have sold or given a few of these projects away because by the time I had gained the skill set, the project no longer appealed to me. There is no shame in this game.

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