How often do you come home after a busy day at work and still can’t seem to shut off everything that still needs to get done?
And not just things from work, but everything else that you’re involved in like making meals and exercising and paying bills and washing clothes and maintaining some level of a social life (and sanity if you have room for that).
We’re constantly anxious and overwhelmed because of open loops in our life that keep playing over and over in our mind without ever being resolved.
So, what exactly is an open loop?
An open loop is a psychological phenomenon discovered by Bluma Zeigarnik. Open loops (called the Zeigarnik Effect) state that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.
And remembering uncompleted tasks is almost never a good thing because all of those errands and goals and desires keep exhausting any mental and emotional capacity you have. And, if left uncompleted, will constantly keep us feeling stressed and overworked.
(Much like a flood our energy can go in all directions and be destructive)
If Only Open Loops Kept Blockbuster Alive
Open loops are used heavily in storytelling (especially movie making). When someone only gives us a glimpse of a story, we’re dying inside to know how it ends. We desperately want to see how the hero overcomes his trials and how the villain will be defeated.
Excellent storytellers know how to use open loops and cliffhangers to get you to become captivated by the story in front of you. Think of the last time you were in a movie and nothing else in the world mattered or even seemed to exist.
The only thing that mattered was the open loops in the story that our mind wanted to see completed so badly.
And the brilliant people at Netflix have mastered it so well that I’ll watch an entire season in a day (Who’s with me? Ok slight exaggeration here).
Stories are wonderful to be captivated by, but when open loops exist in our own, real life, they begin to wreak havoc on our energy.
Every task we have to do slowly builds up and continues to rehearse itself over and over in our mind.
And the tasks don’t have to be big to seem overwhelming.
Occasionally I’ll struggle with anxiety so I begin to examine all the open loops that keep playing their story in my mind. And it’s a little frustrating to realize that the root of my anxiety was only a couple small tasks that I could knock out in a simple hour.
But the chaotic power of tasks is found in their ability to constantly repeat themselves as they float around our thoughts and are continually unresolved.
How to get rid of open loops and gain relaxation and productivity
Most people think productivity and relaxation are two different things. After all, how in the world can you get things done and be relaxed at the same time?
Focus is the key to eliminating open loops that constantly circle so that you can relax and be productive at the same time.
When you can master your focus, you’ll instantly see powerful results in your tasks without stressing over everything that has to be done because you close loops as they present themselves.
Ready to be a relaxed and productive powerhouse?
First, you need to shut down open loops immediately after they present themselves. And I mean immediately. I use three groundbreaking tools to help me do this…
Apple’s Notes, Reminders, and Calendar (Groundbreaking, I know).
Once an open loop is created (an event I need to plan, the car registration I need to renew, feeding the cat several times because she eats way too much), I enter that open loop in one or a couple of those apps.
Big events go in the Calendar (like an event). Smaller tasks that need to get done go in Reminders (like getting my registration renewed) and Notes help me dump all my thoughts and ideas down instead of them taking away mental energy from what I’m doing in the moment.
Simply jotting down the open loops that present themselves will allow you to remove a large amount of anxiety about tackling project. Even massive projects can be broken down into small, manageable chunks.
If you continue to let tasks, both big and small, play over and over in your mind like a movie without an ending, then you’ll constantly be plagued by anxiety and worry.
And, when you try to get work done, you won’t have enough clarity to creatively work on the present task.
Next, you need to kill the idea of multitasking. By now, we can all agree that effective multitasking is a great thought, but impossible to truly get results from.
To be engaged, present, and potent, you need to have a clear idea of the task you want to do in the moment and how that task plays a part in the larger picture of your goals and desires.
So, let’s say you got picked for the lucky and highly-rewarding job of planning your company’s Christmas party (I will judge the eggnog you bring…).
If you were a slave to anxiety-breathing open loops, you’d try to plan it all in your mind and constantly be stressed. Leading up to the event you might struggle to get work done well and your relationships will most likely suffer.
But, since you know how to shut down open loops as they arise, you now mark your Calendar with the date. You jot down Notes of creative ideas and people and food and festivities and let all of your ideas begin to have life outside of your mind. Then, you start adding some Reminders of the tasks that you want to get done and when you need to pick up the food and when to decorate the tree and talking with Janet about her not bringing the fruit cake again.
(You obviously don’t have to use Apple’s apps to get this done. You can even use a trusty pencil and paper if you like).
Breaking down complex tasks in this way allows you to transition from mental energy constantly playing the loop over and over to physical energy of actually getting things done.
Once we break apart a big idea into smaller parts, we can see how they fit together and the power they have to bring our big idea to life.
Now, let’s complete the smaller pieces that bring the big idea to life.
Since we have a clear direction of where we’re going, and we know what tasks need to be done and when they need to be done, we can focus entirely on one little task at a time without worrying about the whole project coming together.
To complete these smaller tasks, I use something called the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique is simply a researched way to section off your time. It goes like this:
THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE
- Spend 25 minutes with complete focus on one and and only one task.
- Afterward, take a 5 minute break from that focused concentration
Each time you repeat the 2 steps above, it's called a Pomodoro (it’s actually Italian for tomato, but that’s ok).
Complete 4 Pomodoros in a row and then take a longer break. Maybe 30 minutes to an hour.
The brilliance of this simple technique is it gives structure and guardrails to your focused time.
Now, you can take each task and estimate how many Pomodoros it will take to complete and plan your tasks in incremental focus sessions.
I’m using this technique right now to write this article. It helps me focus on the task at hand that I need to do and stay entirely present without worrying that I’ll overrun my time and overlook other tasks (I use the SILO app shown in the picture above).
Right now, I’m halfway through my second Pomodoro with this article and I estimate it will take two more to proofread and post.
Let’s Wrap It Up
Open loops present themselves all throughout the day. They can be massive and overwhelming, or they can be small and seemingly irrelevant.
But, we have to manage even the smallest of open loops to stay productive and relaxed.
So, next time an open loop presents itself, tackle it. Write it down and flesh it out so you can either manage it right as it comes up or at a later date when you have more time.
Closing all the loops that continually open themselves will allow you to maintain a steady level of focus and clarity while shutting out the anxiety of deadlines.
I exist to help people explore their identity and connect their unique story to culture. I’m an avid learner and am endlessly curious about the world around me (YouTube has taught me everything I know). When I’m not lost in a book, I’m usually brewing naturally-processed black coffee and picking up strange and unusual flavor notes.