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Calm Your Mind by Closing Open Loops

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How often do you avoid the things you want to do?

Perhaps it’s a big life goal that feels overwhelming, or maybe it’s a smaller daily habit that makes you feel better.

We all know how easy it is to avoid the things we don’t want to do, but why do we also put off the things we actually want to do?

For the past few years, that thing for me was writing this blog. I’d fallen off the bandwagon before the pandemic, and I couldn’t seem to get back into the rhythm of writing.

I struggled with thoughts like:

If this is as important to me as I tell myself it is, why can’t I find the motivation to do it?

I knew I was capable of it, but it was so much easier to sit and scroll on TikTok for hours instead of writing.

Maybe my mistake was thinking the solution was to find the motivation or discipline myself to do it.

The truth is that taking action isn’t as easy as people say it is.

Sure, you can break things down into smaller action steps. Sure, you can create an ultimatum for yourself to get things done.

But what if decision fatigue, mental load, perfectionism, and shame are draining your energy without you even realizing it?

So much of our energy is used up by us *thinking* about things, rather than doing them.

This mental overload is one sneaky reason why we can’t seem to get things done, whether we want to or not.

One way to reduce this overwhelm is by closing the open loops that are depleting your mental, physical, and emotional energy. 

What’s an open loop? Let’s explore.  

What are open loops?

I first learned about the term ‘open loop’ from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.

He describes an open loop as an unfinished commitment.

It’s essentially when you know you need to do something, but you let it bounce around in your brain instead of a) getting it done or b) getting it out of your head.

In doing some research, this term is also called the Zeigarnik effect and was named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who found that we remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

When I discovered this concept, I suddenly realized how many open loops I had in my life.

There were half-finished blog posts, project ideas, and random notes everywhere – none of them being actively worked on or used, yet they were still weighing me down.

What’s interesting about these open loops is how easily they can cause feelings of shame and resentment.

Each time we’re reminded of something we haven’t finished, we feel a twinge of annoyance with ourselves.

For example, let’s say I’ve been meaning to put away a pile of laundry. I might walk past it and think “I’ll put that away in a little while”. I walk off and completely forget about it. When I see the pile again at the end of the day, my reaction is “Ugh, why didn’t I put that away earlier?”

Not only is my laundry pile still there, but now I’ve criticized myself for not doing it.

For a task that only required physical energy, I’ve now added unnecessary emotional energy to it.

This may seem like a pretty harmless example, but you can see how it might add up with bigger things in your life.

How open loops affect us

Our lives are already complex and stressful as it is, and open loops can deplete our energy without us even realizing it.

When we hold on instead of letting things go, it’s that much harder to take action. Instead, it becomes much easier to scroll for hours rather than doing the thing you *want* to do.

I heard someone say that if you’re not sharing your creative ideas, it’s like keeping stagnant energy within you that wants to be set free.

For me, I needed to let go of my ideas by finishing them. Sharing what’s on my mind (though often nerve-wracking) helps me feel lighter because I’m releasing something that needs to be let go.

Lately, I’ve been working to close the open loops with my writing, not simply to get it over and done with, but to release the ideas from having so much power over me.

Now you may not be a writer or creative, but I’m sure you can relate to things weighing you down in some way. Maybe it’s your goal ideas, unfinished home projects, or a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off.

Willpower is a limited resource that gets used up every time we make a decision or deal with something stressful, so it’s important to make our lives a little bit simpler wherever we can.

Closing the open loops is one way we can make our lives a little simpler.

The most important thing to deal with is whatever is most on your mind. The fact that you think it shouldn’t be on your mind is irrelevant. It’s there, and it’s there for a reason.

– David Allen, Getting Things Done

How to close open loops and move forward

Step One: Take Inventory

Start by making a list of potential open loops in your life. What hasn’t been finished? Which ideas are collecting dust?

Step Two: Close the Loops

Do what you can to close the open loops.

  • If something can be done within two minutes, try doing it right now.
  • If it will take longer than two minutes, can you schedule some time in your calendar to get it done?
  • If you’re not interested in something anymore, let it go (this will probably be most of your open loops).
  • If you’re not sure about something, make an intentional decision to put it on pause rather than letting it sit in the back of your mind.
  • If you’re waiting on someone else for a decision or response, follow up or take a deep breath and wait it out.
  • And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for help. You’d be surprised how willing people are to offer support when asked.

Step Three: Keep Closing the Loops

Moving forward, acknowledge open loops when you come across them. Say in your head “This is an open loop” and make a choice to close the loop in that moment (or go through the list in step 2).

I know shiny new things are much more exciting than finishing what you’ve started, but you’ll have more headspace for the things you want to do once you’ve closed the open loops.

Though this concept is mostly marketed as a productivity hack, I see it as a lesson in mindfulness. Letting go gives us more space to be present and focus on what matters.

Which open loops do you need to close?

About the Author
Picture of Catherine Beard
Hi, I'm Catherine! As the creator of The Blissful Mind, I love exploring ways to make life more fulfilling, especially when it comes to our daily routines, habits, and well-being.

26 Responses

  1. “So much of our energy is used up by us *thinking* about things, rather than doing them.
    This mental overload is one sneaky reason why we can’t seem to get things done, whether we want to or not.”

    You’re whole article is very informative and interesting!!

  2. This is SO helpful! I’m a therapist & this concept will be helpful for my clients. Everyone deals with this on a daily basis. Thanks for breaking it down & making it simple & tangible. I’ll be using it in my own life & passing it along to those I work with.

  3. I really loved this blog and I am exactly like this! Far too many Open Loops or as I call them UFO’s Unfinished objects and it is weighing me down. I want to move house and I look at what I have to do before, it is overwhelming! I think making a list and trying to stick to it is good advice, but I often fall by the wayside and am reluctant to ask for help. Then I buy more stuff and that is definitely not the answer. Thank you so much for your emails xx

  4. Just reading the intro to this blog in my email made me sit up and wonder how the heck Catherine hit the nail on the head regarding my anxiety and pressure that I put on myself. I didn’t even realize that I was doing exactly what her email shared until I read the email. I am so glad I decided to sign up for these emails and blog posts

    Prior to retiring and moving, I had never avoided any task and not following through with them to the end was not an option. I never considered it until I had more time on my hands.

    But what if decision fatigue, mental load, perfectionism, and shame are draining your energy without you even realizing it? – straight from the blog and, again, exactly what I am feeling all the time. I tried ultimatums with myself, breaking things into smaller steps and even putting post-its of encouragement in key places and nothing worked. I deemed myself lazy and motivation-less.

    I now have a tool to help me close the loops!

    Thanks Catherine!

  5. As a recovering overthinker, I am still stuck in my head sometimes and it is frustrating! Thank you for this! Super helpful and simple enough to follow – I love the extra reading to zeigarnik effect and the science of willpower, I just love your blog!

  6. My English is not so good,but I wanted to say that you re such an inspiration, giving us wise and clear information. I have once read that unused creative energy of one person turns against that person.I think it s about open loops…
    I m always looking forward for your articles,thank you so much!

  7. whew! exactly what I needed to see today.
    particularly liked: “I heard someone say that if you’re not sharing your creative ideas, it’s like keeping stagnant energy within you that wants to be set free”
    what a concept :0

  8. Thank you Catherine. I was feeling guilty about not completing tasks. This open loop concept is so positive. It lets me want to close each task out. Out of my mind. You are right about remembering tasks not completed rather than enjoying the achievement of tasks that have been completed. Thank you for writing and sharing this concept.

  9. I love referring to them as open loops, what a great way to look at it! I love your helpful tips as well, I will definitely be using this in my life and suggesting to others! Lately I’ve been saying that I’m overstimulated and I’m trying to simplify so there isn’t so much on my mind all the time. I like how you referred to that feeling as Mental Overload, that makes so much sense. It’s so easy to feel that way in our overstimulating culture. This is a great blog post Catherine, I really enjoyed it! Thank you!

  10. This is so relaxing and, at the same time, motivating to read. Unfinished commitments always burden the soul, and I think it’s always better to find a solution for everything without being negative about the outcome.

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