014: Managing Open Loops



Justin continues to work through this major life transition, and along the way has been thinking a lot about all the open loops in his life. He boils open loops down to four categories.


The Checklist Manifesto


00:00 Hello and welcome to Process. My name is Justin DiRose, owner of the Productivity Guild. And today we’re talking about managing open loops.

00:10 This is episode number three in my short series called the journey and these are things that I’ve been thinking about throughout the process of going on this productivity journey and this massive life transition that I’m going through right now. So first thing today, let’s talk about an update on this journey. Things seem to be coming together. My wife and I are working through the process of putting our house on the market to sell and that’s been an incredibly up and down deal to go through. It seems to be coming together though and so we’re really excited about the whole process here. There’s been so much to do as far as getting the house ready and not to mention the fact of all the other things that are going on in life right now as well. So how does my system play into this and how is that working for me?

00:53 Well, a few episodes ago I mentioned that I switched over to the Bullet Journal and this has been week number two of using the Bullet Journal and frankly it’s favoring me very well. It’s working very well for everything that I’m managing in my life. In fact, I think one of the reasons why is that I feel like I’m in a constant state of review. So in digital tools and in systems like getting things done, it’s emphasized very heavily to do some kind of a regular review, usually a weekly review where you go in and you review all of your tasks so that what you make sure that your system is up to date. Well, I found that I was having a very hard time doing that inside of digital tools. Now that I’m using paper, I feel like the process of flipping pages and writing it down, my brain has an idea already of what’s in there and where it’s at and it’s also really easy to just get a spacial concept of what’s in the notebook by just flipping through the pages.

01:48 And every day when I sit down, I’m already flipping through the pages of my project notes, of my monthly log, the past few daily logs that I’ve had, just checking for any open tasks and therefore I’m going through an entire review process. And so when I find tasks that are no longer relevant because something changed I just just cross them off and if something needs to move to the current day, I just write it down again on the current day. It works really, really well. So all in all, I’ve been really impressed with the Bullet Journal. I’ve started to experiment a little bit with custom collections. I’m working on developing one for regular recurring tasks and I’m actually going to try having those outside of a digital task manager. Currently they’re located inside Omnifocus, but since I’m in a constant state of review, I would just flip to that, see if there’s anything relevant that I needed to deal with this month or today on that list, copy it into the relevant log and then do it.

02:44 I’ve been pretty impressed with the system so far and I’ve actually even been finding myself wanting to take notes in it and wanting to write things down from books and make different collections for things like that, so that’s all in all kinds of an update on the journey. There’s been a lot of stuff moving in my life and it’s been a really good thing. A really good process so far, but it’s definitely been difficult. This is why having a robust system or at least an idea of the processes, it’s not necessarily about the tools, but it’s about the processes of how you handle what life throws at you and when you have those down. Then moving through these difficult seasons becomes a whole lot easier.

03:19 Today I wanted to talk a little bit about managing open loops. An open loop is basically an incomplete or a task that is, has been interrupted, something that is unfinished in our lives. Another way to phrase this is something called the Zeigarnik effect where that people remember these incomplete or interrupted tasks better than the tasks that they’ve completed. They basically focus on getting it done and then when they get it done, it’s easy for them to just let it go. Well, my life lately has been a lot of these open loops or incomplete tasks and so I’ve been contemplating the Zeigarnik effect quite a bit recently. And in fact I think this is why David Allen and so many productivity philosophers and theorists talk a lot about capture because the prime way that we deal with these open loops is capturing them. Whether you write them down in Drafts on your iPhone and your notebook and your task manager, wherever it is, the fact that we’re writing it down and putting it into a trusted system is the reason that we can get rid of some of this stress.

04:23 Because when we have open loops, incomplete tasks, interrupted tasks that we haven’t been able to finish, it produces some stress inside of us. And so when we write it down into a system that we trust, almost a second brain of sorts, then we are freed up to pay attention to something else that is important at that moment in time. And then we can come back to that incomplete task in the future. But as I’ve been thinking about this, you know, there’ve been multiple different types of open loops that have come my way and I, I think I have it kind of nailed down to four different categories. We have todo loops. These are the ones of like, Hey, I’ve got to go to the store and pick up these things. I need to go mail something at the post office, I need to send an email to so and so about the thing, whatever it is.

05:09 Then we have project loops. Project loops are things that Hey, there’s this big project that I need to get done. So like right now my wife and I are trying to sell our house. So that means cleaning the house, decluttering the house, uh, of lots of different things like that. And each one of those things is a project in and of itself. And so you have to break that down. Then there’s process loops. So if you are in the middle of a process of saying like, I’m producing this podcast and I know that I need to record it like I am now, then I need to edit it and get it exported, get it uploaded, do all the transcribing and all of that fun stuff. If I’m in a process loop, then I kind of have a checklist step. But you know, there’s still this like task like, okay, I know what I need to do next, but it just needed to go do it.

05:54 And then the last one that I have here are worry loops and we’ll talk about what these are in a little bit. So one of the things I wanted to do today, talking about these loops are ways that we can manage them or mitigate them. So in looking at todo loops, one way that we can mitigate the stress of these open loops is simply capturing them. This is what we talk about, uh, with Getting Things Done. And as I mentioned previously and with other task management philosophies, you just basically write anything down, whatever it is and you deal with it then. You know you, you put it in your task management system, you put it in your notebook, wherever it goes. Just the mere fact of writing it down and putting it somewhere else allows your brain to free up that attentional space to focus on something else.

06:39 I mean these are the most common things that we have to do with that deal with these open loops. But there are lots of times too where we have project open loops. So looking at those, you can capture project ideas and stuff, but you don’t really close the loop on these projects until you go through the planning or brainstorming process. So, for example, when I started going through this major transition, the first thing that I did was I opened up MindNode and I started just brainstorming everything out, all the big picture items that needed to be handled to try to get it down to as minimal of, you know, size of a task as possible and then start working on it. But it wasn’t until I did that that I felt like I had a good handle on it to where I could let it go.

07:26 See, because that’s the, that’s the struggle with projects sometimes that we get it down to a certain level and then we move forward on it as much as we can and then becomes unclear again. So we almost have to do this loop so to say on these project loops to where we go as far as we can until we get unclear. And then when we get unclear, we need to go back to the drawing board again and start doing some more planning and brainstorming. It’s that tension in that process that enables us to keep moving forward on it. You don’t have to have all the clarity right up front on a project to close the open loop. It’s just get enough clarity to know where to go next and then go to the next thing. You know, after you get clarity on that.

08:07 And dealing with process loops I mentioned these tend to be related with checklists. So make checklists, follow checklists, check items off on the list. It’s a whole lot easier to make a process and you can say, okay, I did this thing, I did this thing, I did this thing. Okay, I haven’t done this thing yet. And so when that happens, then you have something that you can reference back to when you, so you can just walk away from that process if you need to and then come back to it. It’s really difficult to manage these type of processes unless you have it memorized and unless you are very familiar with it, um, to be able to come back to it later. But you definitely can. You know, you can, you can leave some of these things in your mind, but they’re just going to take up attentional space. The Zeigarnik effect was first observed and then studied when a psychologist observed that a waiter had better recollections of unpaid orders.

09:00 So you don’t necessarily have to have everything written out, but especially for knowledge workers and less so maybe someone working in a restaurant. It’s probably important to have some checklists that you can rely on so that way you don’t forget about things. A great resource for this is the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. And I think that that whole process of making sure that you have everything kind of spelled out in a checklist is very important for anything that you can because it also, one thing that does is it reduces the amount of willpower that it takes to get going on a task. Because you already know what comes next.

09:35 The last item on the list that I told you we were going to get back to are the worry loops. These are the items that are out of your control. There’ve been a lot of these in my life lately. And so that’s kind of what actually sparked this whole thought of how do you handle open loops? And especially these worry loops. These are the things where you’ve made a decision or you’ve done something and it’s completely out of your control what the result is. And frankly, the only way to mitigate the stress from this is just to let go. If you’d done everything that you can and taken it as far as you can go to have the outcome that you want out of a situation, then the outcome isn’t up to you anymore. And so there is this whole process of learning what you can control and what you can’t control. And frankly, I’ve found that the times where I get the most anxious and the most afraid are the times where I feel like I want to have control over something that I can’t have control over because I want to make the outcome happen.

10:35 But in fact, I’ve just been learning to kind of trust the process so to say, um, that things are moving in the direction that I want them to go. And in fact, that’s exactly what’s been happening over the last few weeks as I’ve been working through some of the major setbacks that my wife and I had in this process that we’re in right now. And so in summary, we’ve got a few different types of open loops. We have todo loops, project loops, process loops and worry loops. And there’s some ways that you can mitigate them. Ultimately, the thing that we want is to reduce our stress and we can reduce our stress by capturing, by planning and brainstorming our projects, by making checklists and ultimately letting go of what we can’t control.

11:20 Well, that’s all for this time. If you want to join in on the discussion for this episode or you want to connect with others who are in the process of becoming better on their productivity journey, head on over to the Poductivity Guild at productivityguild.com. Or if you want to support this podcast and get access to video modules, productivity courses, and more, consider signing up for our Pro membership at the Productivity Guild for just $10 a month. Get a free month trial using code PROCESS19. Lastly, if you like this show, rate us on iTunes or recommend us on Overcast. My is Justin DiRose, and join me next time on Process.


If I set a project to Someday/Maybe status, would that be considered a temporarily closed loop?

I have many projects that are someday/maybe but I am only actively working on three to six projects at any given time.

I’ve been doing daily reviews on many of projects in OmniFocus. Some projects are reviewed daily (usually the ones that I am focused on right now). Other projects are reviewed every 3-7 days. I set aside weekly review more for planning what I want to work on for the next week and to recalibrate the direction I’m going with this week’s projects.

Justin, are you doing the daily page spread or a weekly page spread? I’m curious. I have mine set to a weekly page spread. Rewriting (migrating) all the tasks to the next page spread didn’t sound appealing to me. So I’m happier with doing weekly page spreads that has my schedule and Big Rocks on the left page spread. Then I have checklists and single one-off actions on the right page spread.

I’ll have to take a photo of it one day. Or I’ll try to recreate it digitally because my chicken scratch writing is just awful and undecipherable.


Yes, some days just feel like a dumpster fire… Letting go is often the hardest thing to do.

If you think about what an open loop is (something incomplete), you’re choosing to set it aside as a someday/maybe item. If that gives you closure on it, then sure :smiley:

I’m going whole-hog bullet journal style, with future, monthly, and daily logs to manage everything. I don’t rewrite everything to the next page – only important stuff. If it’s not important, it stays where it was, just not crossed off to get to it when I get to it.

The last few weeks have felt like the best days ever and absolute dumpster fires all at once. It’s hard to let go but you have to in order to stay sane.

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Great article! To add a bit: There’s some recent research from Baumeister and Masicampo that shows that when an open loop is being well-managed, the Zeigarnik Effect goes away. In other words, your trusted system is the key to your sustained peace of mind, no matter how many open loops you have.

Their finding flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which equates stress to size of workload. It’s good news for those of us who try to manage open loops via a reliable, personal system. http://users.wfu.edu/masicaej/MasicampoBaumeister2011JPSP.pdf

Francis Wade
2Time Labs


Thank you Justin!. This summarizes very well for me what is also the best practice in the professional work I know for managing work.

There are isolate things to do, then there are procedures (checklists, templates) which repeat themselves to ‘run the business’ (business as usual), then there are projects, one time unique works to ‘change the business’, in which you have to come up with a specific roadmap or checklist before initiating execution. Very clear that until you come up with this roadmap, at least to get to the first milestone (deliverable), you do not really get rest.

Worry loops is also a nice concept, I had never heard before, referring to things out of our control.

As far as the tools… I wouldn’t dare to say which is better, not I have tried so many. Analog, digital, mix, simple, complex… For work I just go along with the corporate tools available and for personal matters, I kind of like Omnifocus / GTD, though it gets too complex at times.

There’s a thing in all this methods which equates control with peace of mind, that we take for granted, but maybe this just works for a type of person. Some people may be perfectly happy without this control, and productivity is a difficult thing to measure at personal level. Maybe the real goal is peace of mind and not productivity…

I just wanted to thank you and share my comments, no questions for you,

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I’m glad you found it helpful!

It’s something that I came up with when reflecting on the open loops in my life in the last few months. We all have worries that eat up our attention, but we have to let them go so we can move on and do what’s important.

Yeah there really isn’t anything better in general – but there may be something better for you. If it works for you and you’re getting the important stuff done, you’re in the right spot.

You just hit something I’ve been chewing on but haven’t been able to put words to. I don’t think control can ever equal peace of mind. It’s a substitute for it. The instant something crosses into out-of-control land, you no longer have “peace”. In my experience, being at peace is a choice. It has nothing to do with mindfulness or brain dumps – those are ways to manage stress, attention, and focus – but you can feel stressed and everything can be chaotic, but you’re still at peace inside.

Really appreciate your contribution!

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Worry loop is such a great name for it.