Relax Without Feeling Lazy: Kill Open Loops


Stop working on open-ended tasks. These waste your time, cause procrastination and accomplish little. Open-ended tasks are any tasks that don’t have a clear end point. They are activities like “studying”, “working” or “putting on finishing touches”. They don’t have a stopping point where you can clearly say, “I’m done.”

“I’ve got a big test coming up, so I should really study.” Really? Should you? It depends entirely on what you mean by “studying”. If you mean completing a specific to-do list in order to learn the material, you’re probably making a wise investment. But if studying means rereading your notes and textbook until you feel you’ve done enough, don’t bother.

Close All Your Open Ends

Running this blog could easily be an open-ended task if I let it. There is no requirement for me to write a certain amount of times each week. There are no guidelines for how much optimization work I need to do. There aren’t any clear lines to say what is “enough”.

If I ran this blog as an open loop, I’d never feel I needed to stop. There would always be more work to do, so until I drove myself to exhaustion I would always feel guilty that I should be working more. I refuse to have guilt in my relaxation time.

My solution was simply to close all the ends of the tasks in running this blog. Each week I set up a specific to-do list which outlines the number of posts I plan to write, optimizations I want to carry out and work that needs to be done on projects. When that to-do list is finished, I stop.

Relax Without a Guilty Conscience

When you have dozens of open loops in your life, you will never be able to completely relax. Work will nag at you the entire time. You will procrastinate constantly because the workflow in unending. Open-ended tasks are the devil.

Closing the open ends isn’t a difficult process:

  1. Define exactly what needs to be done. Know what your end result looks like. If your studying, an end result could be getting an A in your course. If this is blogging, it could be getting a certain traffic volume in six months, or sustaining a certain posting rate.
  2. Define exactly what you will commit to. With open-loops there is always more that can be done. Close those ends by defining the amount you are willing to commit to. If it takes four hours a day for you to reach that A, then commit to four hours.
  3. Define exactly the tasks that need to be accomplished. What steps do you need to take in order to learn to get an A? If you just set aside four hours without a clear to-do list, you’re wasting time. Make a to-do list for each day and week.
  4. When you’ve finished, stop. When you finish what you’ve committed to enjoy your time off.

Some people complete the first three steps but fail on the fourth step. Once they have finished their to-do list, they add more work. From a behavioral standpoint, this is a dangerous move. When you start punishing completing your to-do list early by adding more work, you sabotage your productivity.

Early in the days of scientific management, employees learned that if they worked faster that would only raise expectations. Why produce 10 widgets on Monday if it means the boss will expect you to produce another 10 on Tuesday and Wednesday. When you punish productivity, don’t be surprised when you start procrastinating.

You probably have many open loops without realizing it. Here are a few sources you might want to consider:

  • Studying. Do you have a specific list of learning activities, or do you just “study”?
  • Exercising. Do you follow a workout or just go to the gym?
  • Work. Do you “work” 9-5 or do you finish a list?
  • Writing. Do you write in hours or number of words?
  • Communication. Do you speak when it’s important, or just to fill dead air?

Are there any other open loops you’re running right now?

  • Hunter Nuttall

    This is definitely true. Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you don’t know exactly what you want to complete, you’ll have an infinite amount of work to do.

  • John

    Great post Scott. I never thought about it this way before. I’ve had your RSS in my reader now for a few weeks; I’m really enjoying your blog.

    You’ve made some excellent points.

    What do you do when you over-plan your week and can’t accomplish everything you committed to? Do you still feel guilty and find it hard to relax? I have this from time to time. I’ve made to-do lists with 20-30 items and then found myself frustrated for setting the bar to high and not getting it all done. Your thoughts?

  • Chris

    Amen Brother!

    This suddenly explains why I can spend 4 hours working on something but feel that I had achieved nothing, or merely ‘made a start’. I had never thought about the guilt free relaxation point but its totally correct… I just wish I had read this before my A levels- I spent a whole 2 years doing open ended tasks and not going out much, plus I procrastinated too much and failed anyway (sigh).

    Cheers for the post man!

  • jan

    Thanks for this post! It has helped me to define what is procrastination and now i fully understand what it means. http://www.stop-procrastinatio… offers methods and answers to aid you to prevent from procrastination. It’s very insightful and has helped me alot! Give it a read today!

  • Scott Young


    Once you’ve been making daily to-do lists for several years, you get a keen sense for how much work you can reasonably accomplish in one day.

    Occasionally I’ll underestimate a few tasks and set an extremely hard work day I can’t finish. In those days, I work the entire time until my to-do list is finished or I can’t work anymore.

    This is balanced by having days where I set the bar too low and easily finish work when I could have added more. It takes time to calibrate yourself, but when you get used to doing similar tasks, it becomes easier to tell how much you can expect to accomplish.

  • John

    Thanks for the response.

    That makes perfect sense. I’ve tended to shy away from those huge to-do lists after I read Stephen Covey’s “7 habits”. I enjoyed that book; it really made me look at my time differently.

    However, I still have small lists that I put in Google calendar. So, this post was helpful to me.

    Thanks again.

  • Su

    Hey Scott, when do u usually plan your to-do lists? do you prioritize the tasks numerically by the ones that are most important or ones that need to be done first?

  • William Cheah

    @John Have you read Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind? This post sounds like that. I found from experience that once you know where you are going (that is, you know where your “end” is) people will follow you. It works for short term goals too. If you know that your aim is to score high distinction for a certain subject, you will find others will ask you to help them with it.