Drowning in an endless backlog of tasks? This ONE habit will massively improve your productivity
3 questions to figure out if you’re an “open looper” or a “closed looper” (and what to do about it)
Answer these 3 questions honestly:
1. When you finish eating, do you clean up straight away?
2. When you get changed, do you put the old clothes in the wardrobe/drawer/dirty linen immediately?
3. When a simple task like making a quick phone call or responding to an email crosses your mind, do you do it there and then?
If you answered “yes” to all three, then congratulations — you’re a “closed looper”. This article will stroke your ego and tell you why your approach to life is so marvelous.
If you answered “no” to all three, then I’m afraid you’re an “open looper”. This article is about to change your life.
If you answered “yes” to one or two then you’re already halfway to becoming a “closed looper”. Keep reading.
If you’d asked me those questions two years ago, I’d have answered “yes” to all three. My kitchen countertop was piled high with dishes. My bedroom floor had t-shirts strewn everywhere. My to-do list was full of tasks that took longer to write down than to action.
Whether you tend to complete tasks immediately, or delay them, has massive implications on how effective you are in all areas of life.
While not washing your dishes or putting your clothes away may seem like a minor infraction, it signifies a deeper problem. A behavioral pattern that over time will eat away at your motivation, your morale, and your productivity.
Too many “open loops"
If you’ve ever read David Allen’s classic book “Getting Things Done”, you may have heard of the “open loop”.
In our busy lives, our brain has to keep track of an overwhelming number of tasks and obligations. This consumes energy and mental space. If we don’t do a task right away, or write it down on a to-do list, we end up with “open loops” — unfinished mental processes that interfere with our attention.
“Open loops’’ are where our brain subconsciously tries to keep track of outstanding tasks. Each time a new task arises, we create another “open loop”. Soon our brain is chock-full of them.
Lots of little tasks that we could have done in a few minutes, build into an overwhelming amount of unfinished business.
David Allen has two remedies to the “open loop”.
The first is to do anything that takes less than two minutes right away. This squashes the “open loop” before it’s created.
The second is to have a system that reminds us of these tasks at an appropriate time. That way, we no longer have to rely on our brain to keep track of them. “Open loops” are closed when we trust that our system will remind us of them at an appropriate time in the future.
The butterfly effect
I took David Allen’s two-minute rule one step further and will tend to a task immediately if it takes less than fifteen minutes. Here’s why.
When we put something on a to-do list, we’re choosing to delay the task. Doing this repeatedly reinforces the behavior, and soon we delay all tasks by default.
Humans are habit machines. We learn a pattern of behavior and then we do it unconsciously for the rest of our lives. Or at least, until we’re conditioned to behave differently.
Habitually delaying tasks is why so many of us struggle to stay on top of things. We’ve got into the habit of letting things pile up. Delaying a task is always the easier option.
Admit it, there’s comfort in opting to delay a task, a guilty pleasure. It’s that sneaky feeling you get when you click “remind me later” on a software update, knowing damn well you don’t ever intend on installing it.
This seemingly minor habit leads to a butterfly effect. Each time you delay doing something, you add to the backlog of tasks. Not only that, but you train your brain to habitually delay tasks instead of doing them.
The more tasks pile up, the less motivated you are to complete any of them. There’s little reward in completing a task when it’s part of a backlog of dozens of other tasks.
This leads to a vicious cycle where your motivation suffers with each task that arises.
You begin unconsciously clicking “remind me later” to all of life’s tasks. Soon your apartment is cluttered, your computer is jam-packed with disorganized files, and your to-do list is a graveyard of tasks that never stood a chance.
You want to get back on track, but life keeps throwing more tasks at you before you have time to make a dent in the backlog.
If you persist with this approach, you’ll eventually reach the end-stage of the “open looper”. This is where the backlog of tasks has become so enormous that you stop even trying to complete them. Instead, you bury your head in the sand and try to evade the fallout from tasks that have run way over deadline; usually by binge-watching Netflix and refusing to answer your phone.
The "closed loop" system
But fear not, there is a better way. Start closing those loops without delay! How? Do it right away!
Whenever a task arises that takes a short amount of time — under a few minutes is a good place to start — just do it! It’s that simple.
When you finish eating, clean up your mess immediately. When you get changed, put your clothes back where they belong. When a quick task pops up, do it right away. When an “open loop” forms, close it right there and then.
Obviously, there’ll be times when the situation doesn’t allow you to complete a task immediately. But being a “closed looper” goes beyond what the practicalities of a situation will allow. It’s a mindset. It’s about being mentally poised to pounce on tasks the second they arise. You only delay them if you absolutely have to.
As for times when you feel tired and lackluster, those are the times where it’s most crucial that you act and not delay. Imagine how lackluster you’d feel if you had a backlog of hundreds of similar tasks. Don’t let it get to that.
Train your brain to act, rather than delay, and you’ll begin the upward spiral of the “closed looper”.
Soon you’ll have a clear backlog and a free mind. You’ll no longer have to rely on motivation to get tasks done, you’ll do them unconsciously out of habit.
Your brain is now conditioned to be a task-completing machine, rather than a task-delaying machine.