Relax Without Feeling Lazy: Kill Open Loops

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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?


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