If you’re feeling a little distracted and loopy lately, the culprit might just be – get this – loops. Specifically? Open loops.
An “open loop” is anything that pops into your mind – or your email inbox or voicemail – that distracts you and needs your attention. It could range from small things like “buy cat food” to big things like “start a new business” or anything in the middle.
The idea of “open loops” became popular more than a decade ago when author David Allen published a business book called “Getting Things Done.” But 12 years ago I was busy with babies instead of business books, spending most of my time on repeated readings of Goodnight Moon. So I was out of the loop on the problem with loops. The only loops I knew about were Froot Loops and the actual loops I ran while chasing toddlers around the house.
But now that those three babies are busy school-age kids, I find myself in a constant quest to get more done in a day. Some weeks feel like a blur of work, school, piano lessons, dance classes, dentist appointments, birthday parties and an endless stream of work and family tasks I can’t seem to tame. So if “open loops” are keeping me from getting ahead, I’d like to find out how to close them.
After a little research, I found some real science behind the “open loop” concept. Back in the 1920s, a Lithuanian graduate student named Bluma Zeigarnik sat in a restaurant and noticed that waiters were able to remember complicated dinner orders right up until the customers finished the meal and the waiter dropped off the check. After the check was paid, those complex orders seemed to vanish from the waiters’ minds.
So the observant grad student theorized that mental energy is drawn to tasks that are incomplete. Once the task is dealt with (and the loop is closed), it leaves the mind. Lab studies backed up her theory, and the concept of being distracted by incomplete tasks is now known as the “Zeigarnik Effect.” (If you’ve ever studied half the night, took a test the next morning, and then realized that you’d already forgotten at least half the study material during the 10 minutes after finishing the test, then you’ve had personal experience with the Ziegarnik Effect. Apparently my college years were chock full of the Ziegarnik Effect, but I digress.)
If Ms. Zeigarnik was alive today, I bet she’d be astonished at all the dangling, open loops in modern society. Social media, in particular, has brought an onslaught of new loops. After I spend a few minutes scrolling through my Facebook feed, I feel overwhelmed by hundreds of new bits of information that probably float in and around the open loops in my head, creating a tangled mess where forgotten appointments go to die.
Perhaps our human nature craves a complete circle. We want novels to be tied up in a bow by the final line. And we can’t help but feel supremely annoyed when a television show leaves us hanging in the final minute with nothing more than those maddening three little words: to be continued.
Productivity experts like Allen say that one of the best things we can do to clear our heads is to find a system for capturing and writing down all those open loops. Once we write them down and figure out the next step needed to close the loops, the more our minds can relax and stop running around in proverbial circles. No more bolting upright in bed, just as you were drifting off to sleep, because you suddenly remembered something you were supposed to do.
So this week I’m going to avoid tackling a bunch of new tasks and focus instead on closing the ones already in progress. Who knows? Maybe finishing more projects will clear my mind and put me into a zen-like state of loop-free contentment.
Or maybe this is all just a bunch of psycho-babble hooey, as my dad might say. I suppose there’s only one way to know. We should test it out by giving ourselves the satisfaction of closing a…
Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.
Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography