The Rockwood Files: Completing the loop

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

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 SONY DSCyears 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…

loops2(See what I did there?)

Loop.

gwen rockwoodGwen 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

The Rockwood Files: Taking out the digital trash

digital trashBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

It was the summer of 1980 and the open field next to our house was overgrown with tall grass nearly waist-high. Then one day papers blew all over the field, getting snagged and tangled in the unruly grass, making it even more of an eyesore. So my mother sent me and my big brother out one afternoon to pick up the litter.

My brother, who must have been about 13 or 14 that year, grumbled about the chore all the way out to the field, while I trailed behind him. He griped loudly right up until the second he picked up the first piece of trash and realized what it was. I saw the paper, too, but my 7-year-old brain assumed it was simply a magazine photo of a lady wearing black underwear, her hair blown back and a long string of pearls draped around her neck, which was odd because she’d forgotten to put on her shirt.

My brother stared down at that crumpled page for a second and then spun around on his heels with the page held behind his back. “You can go home and play. I’ll pick these up by myself,” he said.

I didn’t argue since playing sounded much better than picking up litter in the field, so I skipped back home, leaving my brother alone with the trash he was suddenly eager to collect all on his own.

Years later, I realized that what my mother had assumed was just litter blowing around an overgrown field was actually pages from an abandoned Playboy no litteringmagazine. It took my brother a couple of hours to pick up all those pages, which he said he threw away. Looking back on it? We all know he didn’t throw them away. Those crumpled pages were probably smoothed out and passed around a large group of neighborhood boys who were likely amazed when my brother told them about that special “field of dreams.”

Fast forward nearly 35 years later. Here I am, the mother of a nearly 13-year-old boy as well as a 10-year-old boy, both of them traveling the on-ramp to puberty. And I’m realizing that the overgrown field is still right here – only now it’s not a literal place. It’s a web – a World Wide one. And we don’t even have to walk outside to see it. It’s on our computers. Our phones. Our iPads. Even our TV has access. We’re living right smack in the middle of that tangled, gnarly field, and keeping the trash picked up is a full-time job.

To be honest, it scares me. My boys don’t have to wait for the wind to blow somebody’s forgotten nudie magazine into the field. The pictures – and, even worse, the videos – are a click away. Even though Tom and I have spent days installing internet filters and monitoring software and parental controls, I worry that clearing this figurative field is impossible. The sickest parts of humanity will always bubble up through the cracks. Statistics say that, on average, kids first see porn online at the age of 11. And by the time boys become college freshman, about 60% of them are addicted to pornography.

After reading those stats, part of me wants to pack up and move to a cave in Antarctica where there’s no Wi-Fi. And the other part of me – the part that knows we can’t outrun the world – hopes we can somehow stay a technological step ahead of our kids’ next temptation. But even more than that, I pray – now more than ever – for the help we need to raise good human beings, even in the midst of so much trash.

gwen rockwoodGwen 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

Life with Ladybug: Perspective

Love people sign.

By Shannon Magsam

I picked up the phone to call my husband. To vent.

I’d been to the dentist and I really needed to get a crown — plus I was reminded that I really need to have some dental surgery I’ve been putting off. And I remembered at the dentist that I also “really need” to get a mammogram, but our insurance has changed and that may be an out-of-pocket expense this time.

All I could see were dollar signs — disappearing fast down a big, huge drain.

It put me in a terrible mood.

When I called, my normally upbeat husband sounded sad and I asked what was wrong.

He told me that a woman we used to work with – who moved to another state several years ago – just lost her only child in a car accident.

My heart squeezed and, as a mom, I put myself right there in her shoes. As best I could, anyway, since I’ve never known that kind of pain.

I prayed for her (and will continue) and her loss immediately put my petty problems into perspective.

I often say to my parents and siblings that we need to enjoy each other’s company THOROUGHLY whenever we’re together. I told my sister recently: We can’t take this time for granted. We don’t know whether all of us will be sitting at mom and dad’s dinner table this time next year.

Our friend’s loss is a terrible reminder.

I read these sorts of posts all the time and I remember to be grateful and less annoyed about the small crap that happens in life for a few days. I’d like to hold on to this perspective for much longer. Like, until my last breath.

Life can be short.

You only get one.

Love God.

Love your people.

Love other people, too.

Praying for you, Cristal. We are so sorry.

The Rockwood Files: Camp NotGonnaDoIt

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

In a few weeks it will officially be fall, which means I can stop making excuses for why I can’t go camping.

I realize there are millions of people who go camping each summer and love it. They feel free, peaceful and closer to nature. They get a much-needed escape from the texts, pings, alerts and emails of our overly connected world. I love the idea of an escape, too. I just think turning off my cell phone can give me that same freedom, minus the bug bites and poison ivy.

Before we got married, I was honest with Tom about my aversion to spending the night in the great outdoors. He knew going into this thing that I was never going to be that girl who loves to wash her hair in the creek and spend the afternoon hiking around and pointing at birds. But men will be men, and occasionally they fall in love with the idea of a Grizzly Adams type of existence. Every summer, he tries to convince me that taking our three kids off on a camping vacation would be fun.

hiking iconBut I know myself. I know my limitations. And I know I’d be very “un-fun” on a camping trip. I tried it once back when I was in college. I was dating a guy who talked me into a short hike in the woods to see a nearby waterfall. It sounded simple enough and he assured me he was an experienced hiker who knew exactly what to do.

Several hours later, after reluctantly agreeing to take an alternate route back from the waterfall that was just “a little bit” longer, we were lost in the woods and had run out of water and snacks. The trail map was useless, and there was no one around to ask for directions.

After miles of wandering, we stumbled upon the road that led to the trail head where the car was parked. But we had no idea how far away the car actually was, and we were already dead on our feet. So we hitchhiked back to the car, which is another one of those activities I tend to avoid because it carries an elevated risk of “deadness.”

Since that first failed hiking experience years ago, I’ve noticed a pattern about the woods that’s hard for a cautious woman like me to ignore. Where do the police search when a criminal escapes from prison? The woods. Where do they search when someone goes missing and is feared dead? The woods. Where do the most unpleasant creatures like snakes, ticks and angry badgers tend to hang out the most? The woods.

And we all know how isolated the woods are. If a woman screams in the woods, does she make a sound? The answer is yes, she does. She makes all kinds of sounds, only nobody is there to hear her. And if by chance there is someone nearby, they can’t get a decent cell signal to call 911. (Conversely, when was the last time you were bit by a poisonous snake while strolling in the mall? Exactly never.)

So I’m looking forward to a beautiful fall spent in the city limits. I will wave fondly to the wilderness as I pass by it in the car. And next summer, if Tom insists on camping, I won’t stand in his way. But he’ll have to rough it alone because I’ll be enjoying the comforts of home, where I stand in wholehearted agreement with one of the greatest humor writers of all time, Dave Barry, who once wisely said: “Camping is nature’s way of promoting the motel business.”

gwen rockwoodGwen 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

The Rockwood Files: Note to the younger me

capable kidsBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

A wonderful thing is happening at our house. The kids are becoming… capable. That sounds weird, I know. It’s not like they were helpless blobs all this time, but lately I’ve noticed they can really do things – helpful things, necessary things – things Tom and I have been doing for them for more than a decade now.

Today I was busy cleaning up the kitchen and making a mental checklist of the things I’d need to get done before morning. I caught 12-year-old Adam as he was on his way up the stairs to play video games and said, “Before you play, I need you to make three sandwiches to go in tomorrow’s lunchboxes, okay?”

“Okay,” he said. Then he pulled out the sandwich-making supplies and I heard him call out to his little sister, “Kate, do you want cheese on your sandwich?” bologna sandwichShe answered and he continued his work. Moments later, I opened the fridge and found three bologna sandwiches sealed up in sandwich bags, ready to put into lunch bags the next morning.

Here’s the surprising part. He didn’t need my help. He didn’t complain. He didn’t act like I was asking him to perform brain surgery on the cat. The sandwiches looked just the way they’d look if I’d done it myself, and he put the bread, mustard and sandwich meat away when he was done.

It’s odd to be surprised by evidence that your kids are growing up because that’s what they’re supposed to do. That was the plan all along. But it feels like a minor miracle when you notice it’s really happening.

We spent so much time doing things for them when they were little that it became our new normal – tie the shoes, wash the clothes, make the meals, cut their meat. We’ve taught them things along the way, but there was a small part of us that assumed they’d always need us to help them navigate daily life.

Then today, either through instruction or observation or just household osmosis, the kid suddenly makes the sandwiches and cleans up the mess. No biggie. And it’s so… rewarding.

If I could, I’d send an email back in time to my younger self – the frazzled young mom who spent much of the day chasing a 5,3 and 1-year-old around the house, changing diapers and wiping noses. Here’s what I’d tell her:

Dear Younger Me,

You know this parenting thing that keeps you sprinting around 12 hours a day? It gets easier. One day they’re not only going to be able to find their own shoes but also put them on and tie the laces. They won’t need you in the bathroom anymore. They’ll stop watching Barney the Dinosaur and occasionally even watch the news and ask questions about the world. They’ll start to crack jokes – funny ones — not just that tired knock-knock joke about the banana and the orange.

Then one day, seemingly overnight, you’ll ask your oldest to make the sandwiches and he’ll just do it. Your middle child who refuses to change out of his Superman t-shirt for days on end? He’s going to be able to start and finish a load of clothes, so you’ll have help staying on top of that mountain of dirty laundry. And that sweet baby on your hip? She’s going to be 7 one day, and when you accidentally cut your finger in the kitchen, she’ll get the first aid kit and put the Band-Aid on for you. (Start putting some money aside for medical school. This kid has potential.)

So hang in there, mama. You’re doing good and important work. All this time in the not-so-glamorous parenting trenches is going to pay off. They get bigger and smarter and even more interesting. One day you’re going to look at them and realize that, not only do you love them intensely, you also respect and admire the people they’re turning out to be – capable people who can do things, partly because you loved and helped them through all the years when they couldn’t.

gwen rockwoodGwen 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

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