Open loops are distracting. That’s their nature. An ‘open loop’ is the term for unfinished business, according to Getting Things Done. Sometimes that open loop is a task that needs to be done just once, sometimes it’s a persistent problem, and I think sometimes it’s also a philosophical quandary.
This is why we can get resolution on situations even when they will never change.
I work with chronically disorganized people. The two main things they struggle with are making categories and choosing priorities. This is why they always feel like they don’t know where to start. They’ll cheerfully follow orders, as long as someone is standing in the room with them, and they have no problem getting rid of things or cleaning up really distressing messes. As soon as they’re alone, though, they spin out. They no longer know what to do.
Almost everyone gets into a state like this at some level, tolerating a persistent problem, not knowing where to start or what to do next. We can ignore things that would drive someone else crazy, and vice versa.
The most obvious example of this is someone who clearly needs a new prescription for glasses. We see them scrunching up their foreheads, leaning forward and squinting. They don’t realize they’re doing it, even if they’ve worn glasses for decades and had to change prescription several times in their life.
Another classic is the person who comes to work, even though they’re obviously near death’s door with the flu or a bad cold. Go home! Get out of here before you get everyone else sick, you plague rat!
It’s when we’re struggling that we lose perspective on our problems.
We also lose perspective when life is coming at us from all sides. The harder things get, the less focus we have for what would normally be routine issues. The common cold is an example here, as well. We’re feeling low and only a few days later, the laundry is piled up, the fridge is empty, the sink is full of dirty dishes, the trash is overflowing, the nightstand is covered with bottles, and there are mugs and plates scattered everywhere.
We can use this as an analogy. Has anything been going on lately that is comparably disruptive, anything that has messed with our routines the way the common cold does?
When I come in to work with a client, I expect that almost nothing is working well. Their cars are full of clutter, usually including coins and cash on the floorboards. They have at least a three-day backlog of dishes and laundry. Unopened mail is everywhere. Their bathrooms are terrifying. They usually don’t have enough cleaning supplies, such as a total absence of a mop or even a sponge. They have health problems, their vehicles are breaking down, and if they’re employed then they’re often on the naughty list for being late all the time.
These things work like magic in my own life, because I have systems in place, so I barely have to think about them.
It’s an unfair comparison. The fewer problems you have, the easier it is to deal with them. You can tackle one at a time, especially when they only come at you one at a time!
For a chronically disorganized person, everything feels like it’s happening at once because everything is associated with a constant need.
This is one of the widest open loops. We have to have some kind of philosophical reckoning with the necessity of putting a large quantity of energy and focus toward boring drudgery. Every day.
My people tend to subscribe to the idea that: Why should I make my bed, when I’ll just have to do it again the next day?
The same exact thing could be said for eating meals, bathing, or brushing our teeth. We just keep having to do it over and over and over again!
Most of us eat because food tastes good to us, we bathe because it feels good, and we brush our teeth because minty fresh is better than filmy yuckmouth. We understand the connection between these things we do every day and the positive results we feel.
We can’t feel those positive results for things that we do not do on a routine basis.
It feels fantastic to be confident about your finances and your health, to have a solid reputation for being on time, to relax in an attractive home.
Meanwhile it feels dreadful to experience the anxiety of:
Missing important appointments
Paying unnecessary fines and fees
Getting in trouble at work
Rushing and being late all the time
Frantically searching for lost objects, or wasting hours looking for something
Not being able to get something fixed because your landlord might find out how messy your place is
Those of us who aren’t in that deep should take a moment to pause and feel grateful. As annoying as we might find it to do chores when we’d rather be doing something else, it could certainly be worse. Most of us don’t have problems with our executive function. We can make decisions and take action.
We can, but we don’t always want to. We feel that the annoyance of working on something is not worth it, not equal to the feeling of freedom that comes from a closed loop.
The most commonly procrastinated tasks are writing a will, planning for retirement, and dealing with health issues. This is because we aren’t very good at imagining older versions of ourselves or feeling compassion toward Future Self. Instead of thinking decades ahead, though, we can start by thinking a week ahead, or a day ahead.
Instead of asking ourselves, Why should I have to do this? we can ask ourselves, will I feel better tomorrow if I get this out of the way today?
What would it be like if I was confident about my health and my finances? What would it be like if I spent most of my time in a smoothly running home? Would I feel happy and relaxed if I dealt with my most obvious problems, or would I find a way to continue to feel anxious and distracted no matter what I do?
Action is usually easier and faster than we think. It usually takes us less effort to fix our problems than we thought. Once we finally get started, we’re halfway there. We deal with our routines ten minutes at a time, after all. At least when we are taking action, we can allow ourselves a sense of pride and satisfaction that we are doing something for ourselves.
Close a loop today, and find out how it feels.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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