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Feeling overwhelmed? Close your "open loops"
  • Calendar Aug 23, 2019
  • User Vincent Perry
  • Category In Uncategorized
  • Comments 0 Comments
open loop roller coaster
"Open loops" in your mind can feel like being stuck on a roller coaster...low level anxiety that lasts.

With school starting, many students who had an uneventful (or at least relatively) summer are going to be going from waking up at 9am-or later-and not having a ton to do to having to keep track of dozens of pieces of information every day. School is going to put their executive function skills to the test! Authors Mike Williams and Mark Wallace call these pieces of information “open loops”. In their fantastic book “Getting Things Done for teens", one of the concepts that they discuss at length is is the idea of “open loops”. Understanding what open loops are, how they help you, how they can be harmful, and how to handle them can be the difference between a student who feels in control and one who feels overwhelmed.

What are open loops?

Have you ever laid in bed, mind racing with all the things you’ve got to do tomorrow? If so, you know what an open loop is. Put simply, an open loop is a piece of unresolved information. Information that needs to be acted on, either now or at some point in the future. It’s something that you want to keep in mind so you don’t forget. Open loops are things like

  • Get my geometry book out of my locker
  • I have to take the SAT sometime this year
  • Take the trash out to the curb tonight.

Certainly, having your mind periodically review information can be valuable. If you are driving to the grocery store, having the idea “I need to return this movie to Redbox” pop into your mind a couple times is incredibly useful. Otherwise you might get an exasperated sigh from a parent (or, in my case, my wife) when you get home!

It becomes less valuable when we’re trying to keep track of dozens of ideas. (which we cannot do while remaining sane). In practice, what usually happens is 

-Our minds keep going over the same information, over and over again, 

-It is usually about our most unpleasant, stress inducing tasks, and

-these repetitive, stressful thoughts take our focus away from what we need to be focussing on NOW.

The problem boils down to a simple idea: you only need a thought to enter your mind at the exact time you need the reminder. No earlier, and no later. Do you need to think about an upcoming test when you're driving? When you're taking a different test? Or trying to enjoy a movie? Absolutely not! Not only is it unnecessary, but it can be very distracting and prevent you from performing well or enjoying the other things you want and need to do!

On the other hand, we don’t want to banish the idea of a test coming up in three weeks from our minds entirely. We know there are steps we need to take between now and the test so that we perform as well as possible.

How can we keep track of the information that our open loops represent so that we can keep our commitments? At the same time, how can we banish those thoughts from our minds during times when they are not useful (or worse, are counter-productive)?

Do the task now

Don’t want to waste precious mental real estate on an open loop? The surest way to close the loop is to complete the task right now. This works great for:

-tasks that are going to take two minutes or less. Why spend time writing a reminder to yourself, or spend all day thinking about the task, when you can just do the task very quickly?

-tasks that you are dreading. These tasks are so distracting because you anticipate how much you are going to hate doing them. Do it first and you save yourself the pain of dreading it all day long.

Create a reminder

Sometimes you can't complete the task right now. If you need to talk to a teacher during lunch tomorrow, you want to remember that tomorrow right before lunch, not now. Surest way to deal with this is to process the information so that it comes back to you when you need it. Here are some ways you can do that

-create a reminder on your phone to go off right when you need the information. In this case, right when lunch starts.

-if you write out your scheduled every day (you should! I write mine in my memo pad!) add it to your schedule (so long as you refer to it frequently).

-put a sticky note somewhere you are sure to see it at the start of lunch (your wallet? Your locker? Your planner?)

Get creative. If your mind believes that you will be reminded of what you need to remember, it will feel safe to let go of the information.

Plan the process and schedule each step

For bigger open loops that represent projects, part of what makes them stressful is the unknown. You have project for your history class, so your mind keeps reminding you, “You need get started on this vague, undefined thing!”

The key for getting a bigger project out of your mind is to schedule time to plan the project out. That way, even the undefined nature of the project isn’t stressful. You are telling your mind “Hey, don’t worry about it. Tomorrow, right when I get home from school, I’m going to plan the whole thing out.”

Once tomorrow right when you get home from school arrives, plan out and schedule each step of the process. Scheduling is important. Even if you have a defined process and first step, if you don’t know WHEN you are going to take the first step, your brain is going to keep bringing it back to you.

Make that first step VERY SIMPLE and clear. You need to know EXACTLY what you are going to do when you sit down to do it. That will allow your mind to let go.

Write it down

Some open loops are just repetitive thoughts or distractions. Perhaps you don’t need to act on them at all, and certainly not right now. Imagine you are working on an essay for your English class and the following thoughts occur to you.

  1. I wonder what college major earns the most money?
  2. I wonder if the song I’m listening to is a cover?
  3. Oh I should probably go dump the trash!
  4. I wonder if anyone liked my picture on Insta?
  5. What should I get mom for her birthday?

I hope that you immediately realize that the purpose of these distracting thoughts is to take your attention away from what you are trying to focus on. You mind is going to keep trying to take you off task, and it’s going to try HARD. Looking at these items above, some of them ARE important, while other are really just transparent attempts by your mind to distract you. But the point is this: none of them are important enough to take you away from what you want to focus on NOW. And if you let any of them take you off task, I guarantee that your mind will find more distracting ideas just like them ::walking back from dumping the trash:: “Oh, I should probably take Jojo for a walk now!”

The way to deal with these open loops is to compromise with your brain by writing them down (do you keep a memo pad handy?) In the most patronizing tone possible, say, “OK brain, yes, we DO absolutely need to check Instagram. And as soon as we’re done with this paper that’s the very first thing we’ll do!” Write it down, give your brain a knowing look (“See? I listened to you and valued your VERY important idea!”) and then get back to work. Then, when what you want to focus on is complete, all those important ideas will be there ready for you.

In summary

Information that is bouncing around in your mind needs to be processed in some way. If you process the information in a way that your mind trusts, your mind will feel comfortable letting go of it, freeing up your mental energy to focus on what you want to focus it on.


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