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Feeling overwhelmed? Close your "open loops"
  • Calendar Aug 23, 2019
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
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loops

With school starting, many students who had a uneventful (or at least relatively) 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.

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 harmelf, 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?

If you’ve ever laid in bed, mind racing with all the things you’ve got to do tomorrow, 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

-I need to get my geometry book out of my locker

-I have to take the SAT sometime this year

-I need to take the trash out to the curb tonight.

Certainly, if there is a piece of information that you don’t want to forget about, having your mind periodically review that idea 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 time 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, however, when instead of just trying to keep track of one or two things, we’re trying to keep track of dozens (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 be thinking about an upcoming test when you are driving, or taking a different test, or trying to enjoy a movie? Absolutely not. Not only is it not necessary, but thinking about a test you have coming up 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, because we know there are steps we need to take between now and the test so that we perform as well as possible.

So the question is this: how can we keep the information that our open loops represent so that we can keep our commitments, while, at the same time, banish them from our minds during times when the thoughts are not useful (or worse, are counter-productive) and return to them later?

Do the task now

If you don’t want to waste precious mental real estate on an open loop, the surest way to close the loop is do 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 it, when it can be done very quickly?)

-tasks that you are dreading (the reason these tasks are so distracting is because you are anticipating how much you are going to hate doing it...do it first and you save yourself the pain of anticipating it all day long.)

Create a reminder

Sometimes your open loop can’t be completed right now. If you need to remember 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 (so 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. The point is that 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, because 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, because 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, so that you 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 that perhaps don’t need to be acted on 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

The idea that ties all of these ideas together is that 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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