Use the “Reverse” Zeigarnik Effect to Start Each Day of Practice Feeling Mentally Refreshed

No pain, no gain! Feel the burn!

You may recognize these as popular exercise mottos from the 80’s. And maybe still in some circles today.

But it’s become increasingly common knowledge among athletes from NBA basketball players to bodybuilders and powerlifters, that rest and recovery is an essential ingredient for effective training and maximal performance.

As Olympic marathoner Keith Brantley once said, “Any idiot can train himself into the ground. The trick is working in training to get gradually stronger.”

The importance of detaching

Part of effective recovery is quality sleep. Part of it is nutrition. But another key ingredient is our ability to destress after a long day of intense practicing, rehearsing, and performing. To detach mentally and emotionally from our work and engage more fully in our life away from music. Spending time with friends and family, and enjoying the activities that recharge our batteries and help us approach the next day with more enthusiasm, positivity, and a fresh mind.

Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done, because when is a musician’s work ever truly done? There are always more notes to learn, more performances to prepare for, and always a higher level of performance to strive for.

And particularly when preparing for a big audition or competition, we can easily find ourselves thinking, worrying, obsessing, and stressing about the music even when we’re miles away from our instrument and practice room.

Then there’s the day to day stuff that gets to us. Like, what was up with that look the conductor gave me in the concert? Why does the principal insist on playing slightly sharp all the time? And why does my stand partner take up so much space and crowd me?

It can be exhausting and draining for our minds to remain stuck at work even after we’ve left.

Like trying to recharge our iPhone battery while streaming an HD movie with the screen brightness turned all the way up and the flashlight accidentally turned on.

So how can we change this? How can we detach more effectively, and recharge physically, mentally, and emotionally, so we can dive into our work the next morning with a full green bar?

Part of it has to do with understanding how goals work.

How goals work

A goal is basically just an idea we have about an experience we’d like to have in the future. What’s cool though, is that setting aspirations for the future helps to guide our actions in the present. Kind of like how sailors used the North Star to navigate the seas.

When we set a goal, it’s said to be more “accessible” as it gets a higher priority in our cognitive processing, and our mind keeps it in “active mode” so we are more attuned to opportunities around us to complete the goal. This phenomenon is called activation potential and is sort of like keeping a message in our email inbox that we haven’t quite processed or completed yet.

When goals are completed, they are deactivated and becomes less accessible, freeing up our attention and resources to focus on completing other goals that we haven’t quite finished yet. This phenomenon is called post-fulfillment inhibition, and is like archiving that pesky message, so we can get it out of our inbox and focus on all the other messages we have to deal with.

This all sounds reasonable enough, and everything works out just fine when our goals are straightforward and can be completed in a matter of minutes or hours. But many of our most meaningful goals are complex and can take days, weeks, or even years to complete. And because goals can’t get cleared out of our mental inbox until they are finished, we remain stuck in a state of “goal tension,” where the goal stays highly accessible and we can’t easily put it out of mind and detach from the stress. Kind of like a 3-year old who keeps poking us awake when we’re trying to take nap.

You may recall that this is called the Zeigarnik effect – and can be useful when we need an extra little kickstart to get ourselves in the practice room by leveraging this goal tension. But sometimes we need a break and all we want is for that 3-year old to let us get to sleep already.

So how do we shift the Zeigarnik effect into reverse, and get that 3-year old to chill out?

Putting a detachment strategy to the test

A researcher at Ball State conducted a study of 103 participants to see if a simple implementation intention1 exercise could help them detach more effectively from work concerns and stress.

Everyone filled out surveys twice a day on their goals, mood, level of detachment, how invested they were in their job, and other factors. About half of the participants just continued on with their lives like normal (control group), while the other half was instructed to try a quick planning session at the end of each work day (planning group). Specifically, they were asked to write down a list of all the unfulfilled goals for the day, and then create a specific plan for (a) where, (b) when, and (c) how they planned to complete each goal the following day.

Something like:
Goal: Big scary shift in Strauss still out of tune. Get it in tune!

Where/When/How: After I get back home from rehearsal at 1:30pm tomorrow, I’ll warm up for a few minutes and record the first attempt at the excerpt with my iPhone at tempo, and review the tricky section in slow motion to see if I can identify any hitches or obvious issues visually. Then I’ll experiment with different hand positions – specifically, seeing if I can find ways to minimize extraneous movement from the starting note to the arrival note. Such as seeing what I can do to get my thumb and elbow prepared for the shift in advance so there’s less movement during the shift itself.

So what did the researcher find out?

The data suggests that when tasks are left undone or unresolved, we do indeed have a tougher time detaching ourselves mentally from work. Especially when they are goals that are really important to us.

But the good news, is that there is something we can do to more effectively leave everything in the practice room/teaching studio/concert hall and be more present with our families, friends, and life outside of music. As anticipated, the end-of-workday implementation intentions were a success and helped people detach from their work and stop thinking, worrying, and stressing so much about unfinished tasks and projects at the office.

But wait! It didn’t work for everyone.

It turns out that there’s one important twist. The “when x, then do y” technique is only effective if work plays an important role in your life. The folks who benefited significantly from this exercise were more likely to agree strongly with statements like “The most important things that happen to me involve my present job.” The participants who weren’t that invested in their work didn’t benefit from this technique; their level of detachment was the same regardless of whether a goal was completed or not.

Take action

The researcher suggested trying two strategies:

  1. Avoid starting anything big at the end of the day that you know you’re not going to be able to finish.
  2. Take a few minutes at the end of the day to do some planning, and map out when, where, and how you will take the next step towards completing your unfinished goals.

Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. What are some of your favorite ways to detach from work at the end of a long day?


  1. Wait, what are implementation intentions? Here’s a nice description. And another.

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5 Responses

  1. Although it may not always be possible to do so, I detach by getting things done in the day. I don’t procrastinate and I stay organized. It’s rare that I don’t accomplish each day what it is I wanted to accomplish for that day.

  2. In recent years I have discovered how valuable it can be for me to simply sit and do nothing except notice sounds, sights, and sensations. Sort of like mindfulness meditation except even less goal-oriented, if that is possible! It allows me a few minutes of complete freedom from objectives and thinking ahead, and instead connects me to the raw and vivid experience of time…just…passing. It reminds me that BEING is as much a part of life as DOING.

    I’m convinced it also makes me significantly more effective when I go back to “doing” mode.

    Always love your posts. Thanks so much.

  3. Good points. I think generating my energy and allowing for energy renewal is key. I try to really listen to myself and my body. Sometimes this means taking a nap during the day 😉 and also making sure that I practice when I’m really fresh – practicing not only my instrument (cello) but also exercising physically especially shoulder and back. And I started saying “no” more often in life to actually maximizing the time I have for things I truly enjoy…

  4. One way I got to detach from my 9-5 was by simply moving farther away from it. I’ve lived the farthest I ever had from my work and it is the easiest it has ever been to forget about work while focusing on my other passions. However, I am not one to use the ‘goals’ strategy. Many of my friends have talked about writing down goals, but it always sounded too cliche to make sense. Your explanation of Zeigarnik Effect clicked with me though! I feel encouraged to try this out, maybe get myself a planner to write in, as I find writing to make a bigger impact on me.

    A side note towards my admiration for your site: I just became aware of it this morning and spent the better part of it browsing. Wonderful info that relates to me and my passion. I’m a professional Voice Actor, and I’m finding so much inspiration here to keep working on my personal self. so, Thanks!!

  5. Once a volitional intention to engage in regular practice/exercise is formed, the motivation ophase is completed and the person enters the volitional phase. The intended behaviour must be planned, initiated, maintained and restarted when setbacks occur. During the volitional phase, self-regulatory efforts 5abraham & Sheeran, 2000; Bagozzi & Edwards, 2000; Bandura, 1997) need to be invested until the new hebaviour becomes habitual. Among the volitional proceses, planning precedes the initiation of behaviour change. By planning, persons develop a mental representation of a suitable future situation (“when” and “where”) and a behavioural action (“how”), which is expected to be effective for teh goal pursuit to be performed in that situation.
    For more information, you can read Bridging the intention-behaviour gap: Planning,
    self-efficacy, and action control in the adoption
    and maintenance of physical exercise
    ,2, URTE SCHOLZ2
    I University of Aberdeen and 2 Freie Universitiit Berlin

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