How To Stay Focused And Reduce Distractions With Ease: Close Open Loops

When you sit down to work each day, does your brain sound a bit like this?

“Don’t forget about the project that’s due next week.”

“Have you responded to that email yet?”

“Oh, shoot! I forgot about the dentist appointment this afternoon.”

“I can’t forget to schedule that meeting.”

Meanwhile, you haven’t started on the day’s task because your brain is too busy looping on everything else you need to do. 

Sound familiar?

Then you’re in the right place.

Because this week we’re talking about how to close your open loops, eliminate distractions, and can finally complete the projects on your to-do list. 

It’s time to stay focused and create clarity in your life.

And episode 81 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast will help you do just that.

You can listen to the episode below, or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

Listen To The Podcast Here!

In This Episode, You Will Discover… 

  • How to identify the open loops in your life
  • Why closing these loops helps increase your focus
  • How to close the open loops and boost your productivity

Links From The Podcast

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Episode #81: How To Stay Focused And Reduce Distractions With Ease: Close Open Loops (Transcript)

Hey, everybody! Welcome to episode 81 of the podcast how are you? What’s going on this week? 

Before we dive in, I want to let you know that I am teaching an awesome training all about locking in and following through on your habits. And it’s coming up on February 23rd at 3:00 pm EST. We are going to dive in and talk about all things habits, you will get tactical strategies and tools that you can implement that day to help you stick with your habits and really start seeing the changes you want in your life. So again, that will be on Tuesday, February 23rd at 3:00 pm EST. If you want to get your name on the list, just head to I’m Busy Being Awesome.com/training and I will send all of the details and information your way. You don’t want to miss this one. 

Over the past several weeks I’ve been thinking about this concept called the open-loop. I’ve been thinking about how these open loops show up in my life in different ways and how I’ve learned to manage them in order to move forward and stay focused on my priority projects and what’s most important to me that particular day or week or month ahead. And because I’ve found myself exploring this concept and implementing the strategies a lot recently, I thought you might find it useful in your life as well.

Open Loops Meaning

Now, I think about this open-loop concept in a few different ways, and because of this, I’ve decided to turn this topic into a two-part series. So today with part one, we are going to talk about the more traditional understanding of the open-loop, which was introduced by one of the productivity gurus in the field, David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. And in part two, I want to share with you my spin on this open-loop concept and how it applies in other areas of our lives as well.

So for today, let’s start by getting a general understanding of what I mean by an open loop in the traditional sense. As I mentioned, I first learned about this concept from David Allen in his classic book Getting Things Done, which I will link to in the show notes. And in the book Allen reminds us that the mind is for having ideas, not holding ideas. And I can tell you with my ADHD brain, this is 100% true. The mind is for having ideas, not holding ideas. 

How to Avoid Distractions And Stay Focused

So with that concept in mind, an open loop, according to Allen, is “anything pulling at our attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.” In other words, it is the meeting that needs to happen, but it hasn’t been scheduled yet. It is the 36 emails that you’ve read and marked as unread that are sitting in your inbox waiting to get answered. It’s your basket of clean laundry sitting next to your closet but not put away. It is your overflowing pile of mail, which desperately needs to get sorted. 

These are all open loops vying for our attention, and there are hundreds and hundreds of additional examples as well. But essentially, open loops are those things that pop into your brain when you’re trying to focus on something else because there are parts left undone. And they keep looping back and ultimately create a big distraction. Or they are the annoying little tasks that you want to get done, but because they’re not a priority item, they just float around in the back of your mind for you to do “someday” and take up brain space until that time comes.

Now chances are, you all know what I’m talking about. You probably have your list open loops popping into your mind right now. And the reason why this is a problem brings us back to the first quote that I shared from Allen – the mind is for having ideas, not holding ideas. Yet we insist on keeping all of these nagging open loops in the back of our mind taking up brain space.

How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts

So rather than being able to focus fully on the task at hand, we constantly battling intrusive thoughts of all of the things we need to do, all of the new ideas that we don’t know what to do with, and all of the tasks we perhaps forgot to do or have been procrastinating on big time. 

And you don’t need me to tell you that this is exhausting. Our brain spends so much extra energy trying to hold all of this extra information. And because of this, we don’t have any room to focus on what’s most important. You’ve been there, right? Maybe you try to focus on a project for your boss, but you can’t stop thinking about the meetings you need to set with your clients in the coming week. And you have no idea when you’re going to get that done.

Or maybe you have a loose handle on the drawer in your kitchen, and every time you use it you think to yourself, ugh – I need to just get a screwdriver and fix that, but you never write it down or make time for it. So instead, you face this minor annoyance every single time you open the silverware drawer. If this sounds like a strangely specific example, that’s because this was me for the last several months until I finally delegated the task and asked Ryan to tighten it last week because I clearly wasn’t making time for it. Loop closed.

Closing Open Loops

In other words, when we leave things unresolved in our mind, they keep popping up and fighting for our attention all day long. And though we try hard to stay focused, those pesky thoughts keep coming back because they are an open loop.

But when we create a system that allows us to intentionally close these loops, it helps us clear our mind, reduce the unnecessary energy we use trying not to forget the thing, and we can put it toward the project in front of us. We stop spinning out about all of the things we need to do because we’ve already figured out a solution. 

Get Focused and Present

And while we might not do the task or make the appointment right away, we know when we are going to do it. We have closed the loop, so we can tell our brain – don’t worry, it’s all taken care of. You don’t need to keep reminding me of those unanswered emails or the dentist appointment I need to schedule, because I know exactly when I’m going to get that done. And with that reassurance, your brain stops ruminating on all of these unnecessary things.

When we close our open loops, we are more present in the moment, we create more structure and order in what can feel unpredictable and chaotic. We stop reacting to things so often. And we actually start checking things off the list that we actually want to do. I don’t know about you, but my brain loves that.

How To Close Open Loops

So, how can we do this? How can we start closing our open loops? Well first, as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, everything that I’m talking about here stems from the concepts in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. And I do highly recommend this book for anybody who wants to really take these concepts to the next level. What I want to share with you today is my adaptation of the Getting Things Done method. Or what others lovingly call GTD.

Now, Allen’s method is quite detailed and incredibly effective. People have completely done a 180 on their lives using this approach. That being said, some of the details are not necessarily ADHD friendly for me. So what I’m sharing with you is my version of this system. It’s basically Paula’s version of GTD lite. It is the method that I love to use in my life, and it works for my brain. So for those of you already familiar with GTD, you will see differences from the traditional method, and if you want to take this further and really see all of the different strategies that Allen teaches, I highly recommend his book. But what we’re going to explore today is my version of it.

Capture Your Open Loops And Stay Focused

Okay, where do we start? Well, the first step in closing our open loops is knowing what they are. What are all of your open loops? 

So with that, I love to take some time and get everything written down. What do I need to do? And what are the tasks I want to complete? What emails do I need to respond to? And what Amazon returns do I need to make? So when I say get everything down, I do mean everything. 

Now. Will this take forever? No… Not forever. But, it will take a little bit of time the first time through if you don’t already have some form of an ongoing list.

Will you feel overwhelmed writing everything down? Depending on what your brain thinks when the list keeps growing you might. But just remember, the first step to getting control of the tasks is knowing what they all are. So get them down on paper. And also, remind yourself that every time you do this process going forward after the first one, it takes much less time because you’ve already set the groundwork. So if you can stick with it through the first time, you’ll be golden.

Consider Your Inboxes

Now to help ensure that you capture all of the open loops, it’s useful to consider each of the different inboxes you have in your life. And inbox is a general term for where you have information coming in. So you have your literal email inbox. Perhaps you have projects or tasks or emails that you need to respond to in there. You may have a literal inbox in the office where you have memos or incoming mail. You may have an inbox at home for bills, catalogues, and the random birthday card. 

In addition, you may have voicemails, or different messaging services – for me one of my inboxes is Slack where I communicate with my clients each day. You might have a running to-do list or calendar for yourself or your family with the things you want to get done. And then you have your own brain to sift through as well. Is there anything that’s just been looping in the back of your mind without a concrete storage place?

So begin by writing down all of the things that you want and need to get done. And if you get to the end of the list, ask yourself, what else? What else? And do this a couple of times until you cannot think of anything else at all. It doesn’t matter how big or small the open-loop is, get it down. Because if it’s on your mind, it is an open loop taking up unnecessary energy. 

Refine Your List

Once you have done the collection phase, and you know what you need to do in all of your different inboxes – whether it is answering emails, answering phone calls, paying bills, making a return, or finishing a report – it is now time to refine the list and decide what you want to do with all of these different tasks. Because remember, just because you have listed these items, it doesn’t mean you actually need to do them. So now we are going to start weeding out, delegating, and assigning due dates to the tasks that remain on that list. 

Delete

So I look at my tasks, and I start by asking, what can I delete? What can I remove from the to-do list because it doesn’t really need to get done? Or what can I delete from my inbox because it’s just junk? What can I recycle in my mail pile because I don’t need it? 

Delegate

After I have whittled away the list by deleting items, then I ask myself: what can I delegate? Do I need to do all of these tasks? As I mentioned earlier, I asked Ryan to fix the loose handle on the silverware drawer last week. Maybe you have a nagging task in your business that sits as an open loop in the back of your mind – can you delegate the task to a VA or someone else on your team? If you have a presentation at work and you’re swamped with the client side of things, can you ask someone on the team to create the slide deck? 

Since so many of you busy-awesome listeners are simultaneously working, parenting and some of you are homeschooling, are there certain things at home that you can delegate? Can you delegate additional chores to the kids or can you delegate the grocery shopping to your partner or Instacart? What can you delegate?

So we’ve closed some open loops by deleting the unnecessary tasks and delegating others. Now it’s time to start planning out when you will do the other items on your list so you can close up those loops as well. 

Designate Dates

So what does this look like? Well, I now recommend turning to whatever calendaring system or planning system you love. It might be a paper planner, it might be an app, it might be Google calendar, etc.  I’ve been a huge fan of todoist recently. I’ve been using it for a little over a month, and I’ve found that it integrates well for me and my type of work. So in this next section, we are transferring the tasks left on the list into our planning system and assigning dates to them.

And as I go through my list of remaining tasks, I ask myself three questions

  1. When does it need to get done?
  2. What is the first step I need to take on the project?
  3. When will I complete that first step?

Now, these three questions offer so much valuable information. First of all, if the project from my list isn’t due within the next month, then I move the project to a list that I keep at the beginning of the month that it’s due. 

Focus On One Month And Reduce Overwhelm

So for example, this episode comes out in February. If I were going through my list for the first time, and I have a training I want to teach in July, I would put that project on either the June or July list for me to consider when I’m planning those months. That way I have the task safely stored. I know I won’t forget about it. And I’ve closed the loop so I can free up space in my brain.

Now, as a word of warning, if you have a particularly big project that is not due for several months but it is going to take several months of work to complete, make sure that you have broken down the steps and mapped them out. You don’t want to have a project due in September that will take four months to complete and get the reminder for it on September 1st. So as you look at your projects, and you see some big ones on your list, it will be helpful if you have on your radar an estimate of the different parts involved in completing the project overall. 

And I have talked about the process of breaking down projects and goals into smaller steps in other episodes of the podcast, so I won’t go in depth here. But do make sure that you are giving yourself enough time to complete the projects by breaking them down into manageable steps. And if you struggle with estimating time or you’re a fellow ADHDer with time blindness, then I encourage you to break down the steps even smaller, time out each step, and then double it. Yes, I’m serious. At least until you learn how long the different projects take.

Schedule The Projects

Okay, so you’ve identified when the task needs to get done and you know the first step you’re going to take. And now you can schedule them. If the project is due this week, put the specific dates in your planner or task manager so you know what days you will complete each section of the project. 

For example, this week I’m creating the content for a habits training that I’m teaching at the end of this month. So I’ve scheduled creating the outline for Tuesday and designing the slides on Thursday. I also know I need to make the workbook, but because I’m not going to do that until the following week, I am just keeping that on my general task list for the coming week until I literally plan out my schedule Sunday night. So I’ve accounted for the different components of the training. I’ve scheduled them in. And I’ve closed the loops so I have one less thing occupying my mind. 

So I encourage you to go through your list and decide when the task or project needs to get done, what the first step is that you’ll take, and when you will complete that first step.

Quick And Recurring Tasks: Increase Concentration

Now, this process works for most project-based items on your list. But what about things that literally take a minute to do and it would take longer to schedule it than simply do it? Or what if you have tasks that you do on a recurring basis? How do we handle those?

Quick Tasks

I recommend leaving 30 minutes to an hour at the end of the process where you can take care of the really small tasks that you can do quickly. Maybe you have emails that literally require a sentence response. Or perhaps you need to sign a document or send an invoice. Save a bit of time at the end of your process to take care of those tiny tasks that you can do in under one minute.  

For the record, Allen suggests leaving anything that takes two minutes or less. Because I deal with time blindness I keep it to one minute since it’s easy for me to underestimate time. But if you’re a good judge of how long little tasks take you, then the two-minute rule might be a good option for you.

Recurring Tasks

When it comes to recurring tasks, this is when I recommend scheduling a recurring time on your calendar that you tend to them. And perhaps the most classic example of this is answering emails. I’m not going to lie to you, this was the bane of my existence, though I am definitely getting better at it now. 

But for the longest time, I would never answer my emails because I didn’t have a designated time to actually answer them. Instead, my inboxes would just sit open on my desktop, staring at me, and even though I had my notifications turned off, I still felt the pull to check my email “just in case” something super important came in. And for the record, that happens to me never.

So I would see an email come in, I’d read it, and then I’d mark it as unread because I didn’t want to deal with it at the time or I should have really been doing something else. Or, I would just ignore my emails entirely and let them pile up untouched for far too long. It was a lose-lose situation.

But once I scheduled a specific time to process my emails each day, that took care of the problem. Now I have 30 minutes each day where I process my emails. I respond to any of them that I can do in 5 minutes or less. And anything that takes longer than that, I schedule into todoist for a later time that I’ve set aside for that. And I use a similar process for checking and responding to Slack messages, Instagram DMs and comments, etc.  

When I didn’t have this process in place, all of the incoming messages were tons of open loops taking up unnecessary space in my brain. But when I created a designated communication time that I would respond to each of my channels, I could confidently close the loop knowing they won’t get missed. 

Other Open Loops

And there are lots of different scenarios where open loops don’t fall into the traditional system of projects and tasks, so this is where you get to be creative. Maybe you have tax information coming in, so you create a system of where you will store the information and you put on your calendar the weekend you’ll do your taxes or meet with your accountant. 

If you’re waiting on someone else to respond to an email or decide on a meeting time, schedule a reminder in your calendar to follow up so you don’t put the extra weight on your brain to remember whether they do or not. 

If you heard of a new great book you want to read, add it to your running list or books rather than trying to keep it in your mind so you can once again close the loop. 

While this process may seem intricate, especially on the first listen, I’m telling you, it’s so powerful. And the reduction in your mental drain is remarkable. Because by capturing all of the open loops running through your mind, deciding first what you can delete or delegate, and then assigning a specific due date or recurring time to the rest, you free up so much mental space. You create clarity around knowing what needs to get done and when you will do it so your brain can focus on what’s most important right now.

And once you’ve gone through the process the first time, it gets quicker and quicker. I go back and forth between doing this in about 10 minutes at the end of each workday or about an hour at the end of the week if I’ve had a busy week. I keep my running list of new open loops that pop in my mind throughout the day, and at the end of the day, I go through the delete, delegate, or assign process to close the loop and clear my mind again so I can start the next day fresh. Super simple.

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