open loops

Shine a light on it: get your creative projects out of the shadows

Open loops make us too anxious to even think about getting our work done.

open loops

You can get your work-related anxiety under control…before you even start the work.

If you named your One Goal after reading this article, you’ll be sitting there with a big, magic marker sign over your workspace telling you what to get started on next. (If you didn’t do it, and you’re casting about for what to focus on, dooooo iiiiiiiit. DOOOOO IIIIIIT!! Focus is key!)

So now, there you are, sitting down to work, with all the best intentions in the world. But instead of diving into your creative projects, you…[read email/browsed a sale online/went to Facebook/did your laundry/etc./etc.] Why? Oh god why why why can’t you just freaking get to work already??

I’ll tell you why: Open loops. Nothing to do with breakfast cereal, open loops are things you’ve started (and started can mean “had a random thought about doing”), and not finished. Wherever you are, look around you.

Are there open tabs on your browser?

Open loops.

Do you have a bunch of stuff on your computer desktop?

Open loops.

How many apps are open on your phone?

Open loops.

On your desk, how many individual pieces of paper sit there representing something you need to do?

Do I need to say it?

shine a light on your creative process open loops


I learned this invaluable concept from David Allen in his life-changing book, Getting Things Done (affiliate link) (no really, I’m on record that it changed my life.). Here’s the deal: our brains can hold only so much in active memory. And you’re trying to hold everything you want or need to do in active memory, so you’re constantly anxious that you’ll forget something. Which is smart, because you will.

It’s also dumb because you’re practically guaranteeing that you’ll end up living with Idea Debt’s nasty little sister: worrying about everything you’ve got to do while doing none of it. She’s no one’s idea of a good roommate.

Here’s how open loops affect me. If I have a thing I’ve mentally committed to, I end up running over all the parts of it in my mind, like, constantly. But in the middle of running the details, I’ll have some thought about something else I need to do, and then I’ll feel obliged to go through all the steps having to do with that thing. Then I’ll realize I lost my place on the first thing, and I’ll start over. Ad infinitum. At some point, I’ll realize I’ve been lying in bed for 2 hours with my heart racing, sweating through my pajamas. Sound familiar?

Does anything pop out at you from that description? Like, why don’t I just write it down? Yes, exactly. This is the key action I learned from David Allen, and it saved my life. I went from 24-hour-a-day anxiety and churning over All My Stuff to limiting that feeling to very short periods before I remember to slap myself in the face and say: “download it already, moron!”

And then I write it down.

But I don’t write it down just anywhere.

Part two of this process involves trust.

The reason you keep it all in your head is that you don’t have a system—like an external hard drive—that you trust to keep it outside your head. You probably have little notes to yourself and to-do lists all over the place. The really lost among you may have literal sticky notes stuck to your computer. I’ve seen it happen. You tape a note to your lunch (and then forget your lunch) or keep multiple small notebooks all over your apartment, in your bag, at work…

So when you write down those crucial actions, you may never see them again. Therefore your brain, which knows this all too well, feels obliged to run through its paces.

You need to make a decision: where is the ONE place you’ll keep all your notes and thoughts about what you need to do?

Paper is fine, but then it’s got to be a single notebook that you carry at all times. If you want to go digital, my personal go-to is OmniFocus. I think it’s the best, but it’s not free. Other digital choices (that are free) are Asana (more list-y) and Trello (more visual, like a pile of cards). All three of these have multiple ways you can access your lists, on all digital platforms, so you always have them at hand.

But making a list is one thing. As I said, I know full well you’ve done that before. How is this time going to be different? Here’s the key: you have to commit to reviewing your list once a week. If you don’t review it, and take note of stuff that’s coming up (i.e. schedule it in some way), your brain will not let go of the Churn.

Have a single system to collect all of your stuff, and review that system on a schedule. That’s the secret.

What do you put into this system?

Everything. Absolutely everything.

Start with your workspace. (h/t to Donna Davies Brackett for her decluttering system).

  • Plan to spend 90 minutes on this. You may need more sessions (OK, real talk. You will need more sessions.), but it can be draining to do this hard thinking about your commitments, so 90 minutes is a great start.
  • Get out your notebook or open an Asana or Trello account, start on the left of your desk, and pick up the first thing you see. What is it? Do you need to do something with it or about it? Yes? Put that task in the system. The more specific the task, or series of tasks, the better. (But more on this in next week’s article.)
  • No? Throw the item away (or file it in a reference file. But throwing away is way more satisfying. And simpler.). Proceed to the next item.
  • And, just as with the One Goal exercise, once you’ve gone through all the detritus in your workspace, thrown away the detritus, and filed the stuff-I-wanna-just-KEEP-dammit-jessica-get-off-my-back…you’ll end up with a crazy-long list of things you think you “need” to do.

Then you get to the best part of this process. DELETING.

You can delete open loops!

Take a hard look at what’s on that list. Ask yourself for each item: do I actually need to do this? Do I actually want to do this? If the answers to those two questions are no, cross it off. Done and done.

Take concrete steps to move forward with your work. Read the whole series: Are you letting thinking about your creative projects hold you back? Set One Goal and kickstart your creative work into gear. Identify all the Open Loops that are stopping you cold, and then break down your big project into Granular action steps. Finally, recognize that taking care of your creative process is the best kind of self care, and do a Review

You can find an expanded version of this article, as well as the accompanying activity, in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.

Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.

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