An open loop typically refers to an unfinished project, task, or assignment. Sometimes people will extend the definition to include their major goals as well.
I’ve been finding a lot of value in extending this concept to include anything that pops into my mind where I don’t feel that I’ve achieved sufficient closure. If my mind is dedicating some internal processing cycles to a thought pattern that isn’t aligned with what I’m doing in the moment, that’s a distraction. And many of those distractions come from unresolved open loops.
These open loops could be little things, like a past memory that pops up. Or they could be significant concerns, like trying to get clarity on the coronavirus situation.
So instead of just thinking of an open loop as an incomplete item on my to-do list, I think of it as any thought pattern that pulls my mind away from what I’m doing.
Resolving Open Loops
There are multiple ways to handle an open loop:
- Fully complete it, so it’s 100% done.
- Make a plan for how you’ll complete it.
- Schedule on your calendar when you’ll plan it or complete it.
- Push it down to a Someday / Maybe list to consider later, in which case you also need a routine for regularly reviewing that list, like once per calendar quarter.
- Delegate or outsource it to someone else, in which case you still need to follow up to make sure they finish it, so it remains an open loop for you till they get it done.
- Let it go if you can do that, which may include forgiveness, especially forgiving yourself.
When I extended my definition of open loops to include more than just action items, I found that these solutions generally applied as well. I just needed to be more creative in how I resolve different types of open loops.
Suppose I have a past memory that bugs or disturbs me. Maybe I have some trauma associated with it. That’s an unprocessed open loop. If I don’t resolve my feelings about the memory, it could continue disrupting me for years to come. Do I really want it to do that? Probably not. Is this a problem that can be solved? Yes. It’s a mental pattern, and mental patterns can be changed. Sometimes it takes a deep and serious effort to change an entrenched mental pattern, but as with many skills, the more you practice, the more you can lean on this skill when you need it. The Stature course in particular goes deep into these skills and practices.
One approach that almost universally fails with open loops is trying to resist them. If you try to resist a memory, that doesn’t work any better than trying to resist a project. The memory or the project will remain, patiently haunting you till you deal with it more proactively.
I’ve found that if I’m flexible and creative in my approach to processing just about any kind of open loop, I can bring it to resolution over time and feel that I’ve finally closed it. When the loop feels resolved and closed, my mind can relax a little more in that one area, and I’ve freed up some otherwise stuck mental energy.
Unresolved Open Loops
Here are some types of open loops that can be resolved if you invest enough in bringing them to closure:
Do you have an aligned morning routine that consistently gets you off to a strong start to each day? The lack of a good morning routine is an unresolved open loop. Same goes for a decent morning routine that’s inconsistently maintained.
Have you figured out how to consistently eat and exercise so that you feel good, have abundant energy, and don’t fight with your health habits? If not, that’s an open loop.
Do you have any chronic health conditions that are probably reversible? Do you know if they’re reversible or not? Have you done whatever it takes to fix them? This may require major lifestyle and habit changes. Is it possible though? If it’s possible to solve these problems and you haven’t solved them yet, that’s a significant open loop that could distract you. Imagine if you permanently solved these problems and could finally let them go for good. Alternatively, you could deeply welcome and accept them as-is. But if you still feel some resistance towards them, that’s an open loop.
Are you in a misaligned relationship? Or are you single and feeling misaligned with that? If you’re not feeling good about your relationship situation, that’s an open loop. It won’t go away on its own. It will just keep nagging you till you properly address it and finally solve it. Is this a solvable problem? Yes. You may need to do a ton of inner work, but many other people have done that, and they enjoy happy relationships as a result. Knowing that other people have already created situations that you desire could nag at you endlessly till you finally close this open loop for yourself.
How are you handling the current coronavirus situation? Are you able to handle the uncertainty regarding what will happen next? If not, then you haven’t processed the situation well enough yet. You may still need to do some reframing till you’ve come up with a flexible and adaptable strategy. If you’re feeling off balance, that’s an open loop. It’s possible to feel balanced and grounded amidst major changes and uncertainty.
You may see a common pattern here. All of these require great self-control and self-discipline. There’s no getting around that.
Resisting the need for self-control is itself an open loop. If you try to fight the obviousness of this, the open loop will just keep staring at you. And you’ll keep spending more mental processing cycles thinking about it again and again. And again!
Another problem is that low self-control tends to create more open loops. If you don’t muster the resolve to close these open loops, they’ll eventually pile up, which can start to feel overwhelming. Then the temptation is to sink into constant self-distraction to avoid having to deal with them. A better solution is to recognize and admit the tremendous need to work on one’s self-control, and then train yourself to build that muscle.
Many open loops look smaller and less daunting when you build your self-control. The first step is just deciding that this matters to you and that you’ll need to invest in this for life.
Putting a good plan in place can help to quiet a pesky open loop, even if the plan isn’t very good and won’t actually work. But when you create a thorough plan that you truly believe can work, the effect is even stronger.
Our lives are filled with solvable problems that we haven’t actually solved, troublesome memories that we haven’t fully integrated, and relationship troubles that we haven’t fully forgiven or released. These are open loops.
A simple realization is that if you can develop better self-control, you can close more open loops because you’ll have more capacity to do so. But how do you build more self-control? You can build self-control by closing open loops.
Start by closing the easier open loops. Don’t just settle into busywork each day. Pick some open loops that you can fully close. Then close them. It’s like training with lighter weights before you move to heavier weights.
Closing Open Loops
This is how I like to flow through my workdays. I identify open loops that I’d like to close that day. Maybe I list a bunch of smaller open loops. Maybe I decide to tackle one big open loop. Or maybe I pick an open loop that’s a meaningful slice of a larger project. Then I prefer to work single-mindedly to close these loops one by one.
Having an article idea pop into my mind is an open loop. So to close that loop, I have to write and publish the article. I prefer to do that in one sitting when possible. I virtually never outline an article one day and then write and edit it the next day since that would leave an open loop overnight. If I’m going to give my attention to an open loop, I want to bring it to some form of closure before I move on to the next task or project.
It feels much more rewarding to me to close a few open loops during a day than it feels to chip away at a bunch of projects and not fully close anything. Driving tasks to full completion is often difficult and requires great tenacity sometimes, but nothing beats the feeling of getting to 100% done.
Processing the Coronavirus Open Loop
If you were reading my blog last month, you may have noticed that I focused intently on the coronavirus situation for a while, writing many articles about it. The virus introduced a major unresolved open loop to my life and to the lives of my readers, and I wanted to give it sufficient attention to fully process it until I could achieve some form of closure with it. Every day I tried to advance my understanding of the situation, make reasoned predictions, assess the risks, and make aligned decisions for how to proceed. I couldn’t just ignore that giant open loop and stick it on the back burner.
I found this extremely helpful. It allowed me to get up to speed quickly with the new reality. This helped me determine if I needed to make any course corrections or adaptations. For instance, I decided to drop the plan to do a new workshop in the Fall. There was too much uncertainty over the viability of that idea. So that was an open loop of uncertainty that I had to resolve and close. I can always add that project back when it becomes viable again, but I find it better to close that loop for now by taking it off my plate. That way I’m not dwelling on it in the back of my mind, and I can free up that mental energy for other projects.
Like many people, I also had to do some extra processing on Trump’s depths of lying, stupidity, incompetence, and utter ridiculousness in handling the virus situation. Pretty much every day, the news headlines is some form of, “Yup… Trump is still behaving like a toddler.” Sadly I’m not joking. I have to factor in how having a moron for a President could affect my life. That’s an open loop that takes some processing to resolve, so I don’t feel knocked off balance by his endless acts of idiocy. Interestingly, this actually lead me to feel more grateful and appreciative of sane, intelligent, and honest people.
Eventually I felt that I grasped the possibilities of the coronavirus situation well enough, and I’d done what I could to practice and promote the importance of social distancing early on (when it matters most). So this no longer felt like a major open loop in my life. While it’s still an ongoing and evolving situation, I’ve settled into a way of keeping up to date that feels balanced and doesn’t distract me while I’m working on other projects. Until the situation changes in some way I didn’t already factor in, I don’t feel that it needs as much direct personal attention anymore.
If you broaden your definition of open loops, what do you see? What still needs more processing to bring those open loops to full resolution? What thoughts and feelings still nag at you?
A good test is whether you feel chill about a situation. If you still feel some tension and your mind can’t relax, there’s more processing to be done to close the loop.
I find a lot of benefit in just asking: What would it really take to fully close this loop for the rest of my life?
Then I try to be deeply honest with myself. The answer may initially seem like it would take a Herculean effort, but it only seems so relative to my current strength. If I had Hercules’ strength, then a Herculean effort would seem pretty normal. Oh… it’s another Hydra… no problem! Then I see it as a character sculpting challenge to build the necessary strength, however long it takes.
This is my preferred way to frame persistent open loops that are extremely difficult to close. They’re character sculpting challenges, inviting me to grow into a smarter and more capable human being, so I can finally close them. If I don’t accept and commit to the growth challenge, I can never hope to close those open loops, and they’ll pester me for the rest of my life. Accepting the growth challenge is the wise choice then.
Even when it’s really difficult to do so, reaching the point of full closure of a persistent open loop can be so rewarding that it’s worth pursuing. The greatest reward is to experience the character you created in order to finally close those loops.