It came to me, as many of my moments of inspiration do, when I was doing something completely unrelated. I was enjoying a beautiful walk in the hills with my wife last weekend, and it occurred to me: “we all have lots of things we need to do, our ‘open loops’. The important question is: how much have we refined them?”
As I mulled this over later, it occurred to me that there is a hierarchy of refinement when it comes to our open loops. The more sophisticated we make them, the more we set ourselves up to be productive, and the more we generate clear mental space. That is, the more we realise the benefits that GTD® offers.
How refined are your open loops? Here’s a ‘Scale of Sophistication’ to help you do a bit of self-assessment:
“My open loop is”…
Level 0: Fuzzy and in my head. I have a vague sense that I need to do something about something. Maybe I have an unresolved issue with a colleague. Or I’m not satisfied in my current job. Or I’m not sure I’m saving enough for retirement. I haven’t done anything about this open loop; it just keeps travelling about in my brain, appearing in my consciousness from time to time, unpredictably.
Any open loop is on your mind because you have an unfinished commitment related to it. But the brain is not good at holding onto details. And it’s also not good at reminding us when it’s helpful to be reminded, and only then. I’m thinking of it, not about it. And every time that open loop pops into my conscious mind it’s crowding out more helpful or enjoyable thoughts.
Level 1: Clear and in my head. What I need to do is clear. I need to call the garage to book my car in. I need to order new running shoes online. I need to call my mum for her birthday.
The good news is that I’ve decided what needs to be done; the bad news is that if I can’t do it right away then I won’t be able to count on my brain to remind me about it in helpful ways. I’ll probably think of it more than once, which is inefficient. And I’ll think of it when I can’t do anything about it. Ever been woken in the night by a thought about something you need to do at the office? If so, you will know what I’m talking about here.
Level 2: Fuzzy and out of my head. I’ve made a note about a vague thing that has my attention. Maybe I’ve written a note somewhere that reads ‘holiday planning’, or ‘Christmas gifts’, or ‘conference presentation’.
I’ve gotten the idea out of my head, which is a plus. But until I’ve really determined what it means for me, my brain is unlikely to let go of it completely (“what do I need to do about Christmas gifts?”). Also, I’m not set up to move it forward in the most friction-free way, so I’m limiting my potential future productivity.
Level 3: Clear and out of my head. I’ve made a clear decision about what I need to do, and I’ve recorded it somewhere. Maybe it’s a next action to email a colleague about preparing for a client meeting. Or it’s a project to finalise the budget for next year. I’ve written both of those things down on a to-do list. All good, right?
Well, there is good news: the reminders are clear and I’ve gotten them out of my head. The bad news is that I haven’t yet stored the reminders in the most effective way. An optimal organisational system has ‘clean edges’, meaning that the things that mean one thing are stored together in the same place. If my projects and my next actions are jumbled up, as they are here, I’m less likely to be reminded about those things when it’s helpful to be reminded. It would be better, for example, to have the reminder about the email stored on a list of things I can do when I have access to a digital device, and the project on a list of projects that I review when I want an overview of the bigger outcomes I’m interested in achieving.
Level 4: Clear, out of my head, and available when it’s helpful. When it comes to levels of refinement, this is open loop heaven. I have a clear action or outcome that I’m going to see when I want to see it. I have a reminder to ‘talk to the boss about the budget draft’ when I next see her, on a list called ‘Things to discuss with the boss’. Or I have the project ‘plan annual staff retreat’ on a projects list that I’ll review weekly to make sure it and all of my other larger outcomes are on track.
We’ve all got open loops. How refined are yours?