Closing Open Loops: Boost Your Work Quality and Reduce Stress

Open Loops

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Have you ever found yourself feeling anxious or nervous even though there is no glaring, imminent problem in your life?

It might be partly caused by micro-stressors we'll refer to as “open loops.” We all have them, but labeling them and adopting a plan for attack for removing them can be wildly beneficial. In this article, we’re going to learn what they are and how to beat them. 

What Are Open Loops?

This article isn’t about marketing, but the phrase "open loops" is more common in that space than in the world of productivity. 

The concept of the open loop was first recorded by psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik. She found through years of research that the human brain is inclined to recall and concentrate on unfinished tasks more so than those that are finished.

Zeigarnik Effect

This became known as the Zeigarnik Effect (source). Another similar psychological principle that helps explain the concept of open loops is the Ovsiankina effect. It suggests that humans have an innate desire to finish tasks that they've started. 

This, of course, doesn't mean that we do complete the tasks or ventures we start, but it explains why not completing them causes stress.  

The Zeigarnik Effect is a double edged sword. On the positive side, it pushes us to create a plan and focus on completing the things we start. On the negative side, it can run haywire and lead us "to become “stuck,” always preoccupied with looking for the next accomplishment to tackle."(Source)

Marketers use “open loops” to keep their target audience hooked. Open loops happen when the reader, listener or viewer is left hanging in suspense.

Something interesting is withheld until a later point and curiosity makes it impossible to move on without closure.

I've written about a method of email marketing called the "soap opera sequence" that is based on this concept.

The best example is a TV series that abruptly ends an episode at a point of high drama. This all but guarantees most viewers will tune into the next episode.

The “to be continued” approach is not just because an episode was too long to fit into its time slot. It’s a strategy that dramatically increases viewership on the next episode. 

Like all good marketing, this plays off of our human nature. We don’t like when things are left incomplete. We crave resolution. Without it, we are uncomfortable.

Why Does the Zeigarnik Effect Happen?

Although the Zeigarnik Effect typically appears in non-life threatening scenarios like driving us to want to watch the next episode of a TV show, the concept has primal survival roots.

For example, our ancestors wouldn’t see a bear in the woods and then be comfortable if they suddenly lost sight of it. 

They’d need to know that the threat was gone before they let their guard down and relaxed again.

They'd need to know that the bear wasn’t just out of sight, but that they were totally out of danger.

They’d need to see the distance created.

If they didn’t they’d be stuck in a state of heightened anxiety indefinitely, until the certainty of safety was restored.  We are descendants of the high strung and stressed out

Those who weren't wired like this aren’t our ancestors. 

**Pours a sip of beer onto office floor for the fallen primal homies who were too chill and were eaten by bears before they could share their genes...**

Staying alive is valued more than peace of mind in the evolutionary cycle. 

This subtle stress is a part of our daily lives today and will be for many more generations until our evolution can catch up to our new realities. Our quality of life and safety outpaced our primal instincts, so we're unfortunately stuck with a lot of traits that are now more burdensome than useful.

Open Loop Diagram

While it saved our ancestors, stress at scale is a recipe for burnout, depression and even death.

Yes, even though that pile of dirty dishes (an open loop) isn’t going to kill you, the stress of knowing you need to finish them isn’t great. 

You carry it around. Although it may not be front of mind, the mild stress of the open loop is there.

Then, add on the dozens of other open loops we carry and you can find yourself in a situation of constant stress and anxiety.

So, identifying and closing the open loops in our lives is critical.

Here are a few examples of “open loops” that I’ve identified in my life for this article.

  • Projects that I am no longer interested in but have left half complete instead of officially retiring them. 
  • Small but unhealthy habits I repeat daily that I’ve intended to address but haven’t. Too much caffeine is one example.
  • Not properly setting up a new business bank account so that it properly accounts for personal and business expenses.

I’m working on closing them. 

What open loops do you have in your life that you could close? Of course, not all open loops present the luxury of being quickly closed. Paying off $150k in student loans isn’t going to happen overnight. I challenge you though to find the ones you can close quickly and do it immediately. Create a plan for the bigger ones and you’ll probably notice a greater sense of peace of mind. 

Tips on Closing Open Loops

Now that you know what open loops are, it’s time to attack them. Here are some tips for closing your open loops. 

#1 Leverage the Do/Delegate/Drop/Defer Method

Also known as the "Eisenhower Matrix," this method helps us organize our tasks into quadrants based on their level of important and urgency. 

There are 4 types of solutions to tasks. 

  • Do - These are important and need to be completed by you alone. 
  • Delegate - These need done but aren't as important as other tasks on your list. Therefore, they can be passed off to someone else. 
  • Drop (Delete) - These are tasks that are neither important nor urgent. You shouldn't spend any time on these tasks or bother to hire others to do them.
  • Defer - These are not urgent tasks that are important to you in the long run. You should put them onto a list for the future, but avoid them in the short term.

Here is what the Eisenhower Matrix looks like. 

Eisenhower Matrix Example

You can make your own Eisenhower Matrix with a sheet of paper or inside any number of note taking or project management softwares that you might use. 

You can find a good Notion Template for an Eisenhower Matrix in the link below. 

Make a list of your open loops and then decide if you should do them, delegate them to someone else or drop them entirely.

Open loops don’t always need to be done to be closed. Sometimes, they just need to be dropped entirely. 

My personal favorite is delegating. You can easily pass off many tasks both online or in person if you have the financial flexibility and patience to do so. 

#2 Adopt the 2 Minute Rule (Outside of Work)

If something that should be done can be done in under 2 minutes, do it right away.  Don’t put it onto your to-do list. Just crush it immediately. 

Two minute rule diagram

David Allen gets most of the credit for this concept in his book “Getting Things Done,” which is worth a read.

It's basically Nike's "Just Do It" slogan with a little deeper explanation. 

My one exception to the 2 minute rule is to never let little tasks distract you from deep work. Small distractions can cause you to lose your focus easily which has a ripple effect on your quality of work and productivity.


Did I just spend a bunch of time telling you that getting things done is good and not getting things done is bad? Hopefully it didn't come off that simplistically as we now know that not all tasks are created equally.

We can create an Eisenhower Matrix to decide which things should be done, delegated, deferred or deleted. 

We can leverage the 2 minute rule to prevent small tasks from joining the open loop list.

Hopefully you now understand better why small, unfinished tasks can weigh on us. I hope that this article inspires you to go close some of your open loops and see if you start feeling a little more pep in your step. 

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