You know that feeling when you see a grimy spot on the wall but you never get around to cleaning it?
What about when your stash of oats is running low, yet you always delay your trip to the supermarket?
Or my personal favourite, knowing you have work to do, yet somehow being able to fill your time with useless crap like YouTube and Instagram?
Welcome to the world of attention residue, or more specifically, the reason why you get that nagging feeling to complete unfinished tasks and why it can worsen your procrastination.
Open loops affect our psyche
Before we get started, let’s first talk about the open loop. You’ve probably experienced this in one form or another.
It’s the cliffhanger at the end of a show. The psychology behind a clickbait title. The ever-present question in your mind that’s not relevant to your life, yet still finds a way to crowd out all your other thoughts.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the open loop, and what it does is drain all your precious brain juice every time you spend too much time thinking what to eat for dinner, or which Netflix show to watch.
It’s not something that we can wish away though, and that may seem like a bleak prospect, but there are ways to control it. Better yet, open loops can even be useful, when seen in the proper context.
Our loops are our karma
Good news! You can close your loops. In fact, you should close as many loops as you can. This is especially true when we voluntarily pick up loops that we then proceed to procrastinate on, such as prepping healthier meals, or doing the chores.
The these loops ultimately shape our minds. You know how in Atomic Habits, James Clear says that each tiny action is a vote that takes place in your mind? I really believe that.
Each action you take or avoid—even down to the tiniest thing like not making your bed—shapes who you see yourself as a person. And you, are basically the average sum of all your actions combined, as seen by your conscience.
So to me, karma isn’t an all-knowing force in the universe that jots down your bad deeds—like that time you stole money from your grandma’s wallet—and dishes out your punishments to its whims and fancies.
Instead, karma is the vibe that we carry, one that’s not visible, but certainly detectable by others.
Yes, I do tend to get woo-woo from time to time. No, I won’t be selling you magic crystals or lucky pendants.
But let’s get back to loops.
My personal example of unending loops
I miss my days as a hairdresser sometimes. Back then, I only had to deal with whoever walked in the door. All my troubles remained at the salon once I left work. I didn’t need to worry about an unfinished report or an upcoming meeting.
Then I became a marketer. And boy, did my work drag on forever.
For instance, I could be rushing out a blog post, which would be interrupted by a meeting. In said meeting, I’d get handed seven more unrelated tasks, one of which requires some planning (like an interview), which would inevitably take precedence over my article. But wait! Another team now requires some proofreading and now I find myself not being able to focus on any one thing.
Even writing that paragraph is stirring the long-dormant well of fury within me, one that I’d tamped with false smiles and nighttime tears.
You know what’s worse? I think some of those habits have become part of me. Loops are my life now. The infinite loop, to be precise.
Write it all down
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom! *flashes fake smile*
Maybe that’s why the productivity gurus from all walks of life always recommend journalling, morning pages, and to-do lists. Because the act of capturing your thoughts—much like Dumbledore and his Pensieve—frees up you mind to do what’s most important.
For me personally, just knowing that I’ve recorded my swirling thoughts somewhere—like wondering if I’m shorter than Kevin Hart, or if broccoli is spelled with double ‘l’s—gives me enough satisfaction to let go of said thoughts.
That’s also probably why the bullet journal movement has taken the world by storm. Because we’re all made of loops, and Pensieve-ing our thoughts help us navigate through a world that won’t let up.
And that’s going to be our first line of defence too.
Preparing your thought-capturer
Let’s set yourself up for success. It’s time to start capturing some thoughts.
You know what I’ve found to be most effective to close my loops? Having a one-stop place for my brain dumps. You might be tempted to have a to-do list that’s separate from your planner. I suggest recording everything labelled as ‘mind trash’ in one place.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a to-do, a to-read, that nice quote you heard, or that question you want to google. This will be your one-stop brain deloader.
I myself am super appreciative of the app Notion, because I get to sync the platform across my laptop and mobile, which is practically at my fingertips for the entire day (not sponsored I swear). It has wonderful organising features too, and best of all, it’s free.
This way, I don’t have to scramble for a device every time I want to log down my thoughts. Depending on your own workflow, this may or may not work for you.
I am considering keeping a notebook just for this purpose, but the downfall of it is that it’s never around when I need it. So yeah, do what works for you, as long as you have a single place you can dump everything in.
What goes into this listibook?
You like that word? I came up with that myself. Sounds pretty stupid, but it has a certain ring to it. Helps you remember. Because it’s not as if you already have a listibook, right?
Anyway, you’ll want to list down anything that nags at you the entire day.
You’re doing the chores, but your mind just won’t let you forget that unfinished blog post? Write that down.
Feel guilty for not replying those e-mails? Write that down.
You have that big item in your to-do list but you’re not sure how to get started? Break it down into smaller tasks and, you guessed it, write that down.
Why does this work?
You know what? I may have jumped the gun here. Before we talk about why this works, let’s first talk about the Zeigarnik Effect.
Right… so what is the Zeigarnik Effect?
The most basic premise of this effect is that we tend to remember incomplete tasks more than we do completed tasks. This is why open loops tend to claw at our psyche with the urgency of us thinking we left the stove on.
Remember when I said that open loops could help us overcome procrastination? If you look at the Zeigarnik Effect as something that spurs us into action, you can actually see how this reaction could be useful in keeping us on top of all our unfinished tasks.
A common example of exploiting this effect to battle procrastination is by taking a very small step towards completing your tasks. This creates a cliffhanger—will you write the entire blog post? Or will you simply be content with that first line?—that your mind will constantly remind you of.
Of course, if you’d like to know more, I suggest you google it, because so many smarter people can better educate you than I ever can here.
Back to why listing works
Now we return to the flip side, which is doing our best to clear our mind from these pesky open loops.
Some goals, by nature, aren’t achievable within a short period of time. After all, tasks like ‘write a novel’ or ‘lose twenty pounds’ can never escape the clutches of the Zeigarnik Effect.
Which is why people like E Masicampo and R Baumeister have taken their research one step further, and they’ve found that the act of planning itself can help lessen the nagging pings that bother us throughout our day.
In other words, you can lessen goal activation by simply planning them towards completion, and based on the research, you’ll enjoy a clearer mind, even though you have tasks that still remain unfinished.
So, what do you say? Ready to have yourself a listibook yet?
It’s all connected
The more I study and practise new productivity techniques, the more I see how they’re all connected. Thanks to this knowledge, I can now appreciate smaller tasks that take me to my larger goals.
I realise now why it’s beneficial to I finish tasks that take less than a few minutes, or why committing thoughts to paper can be so important.
And now that you’ve reached the end of this post, I hope you also start to see things in a new light. This is not just an ending—it’s a loop that’s soon to be closing.
And with this final sentence, I now liberate you to go on ahead and tackle that next unfinished thing in your list.
You know what task you should add to your listibook? Joining the newsletter. In fact, close the loop and join now. There’s also a guide on how to grow your blog through the art of commenting. Do it. Click the button.