Getting Things Done- Open Loops

Getting Things Done- Open Loops

(This is part II of a series on David Allen’s classic book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity)

I had originally planned on making a post about each chapter of Allen’s book, but chapter two provides an overview of his entire system, and is therefore long and dense. I think that long, dense summaries of long, dense chapters is anathema to the art of blogging, so discussions of this chapter will be broken up into its five sub-headings.

Allen’s system is made up of five steps:

  1. Collect things that demand our attention
  2. Process what they mean and what to do about them
  3. Organize the results of step 2
  4. Review everything in our organized system so we can determine how to carry out step 5
  5. Do– get it done

Step 1, collecting everything that needs to be done, seems simple enough. As Allen points out, this whole system is rather intuitive- we usually do some form of these five steps automatically. The purpose of this book is really to make this natural system deliberate and therefore functional. Unfortunately, our natural inclination is to do all five at once, and that usually looks like creating a list and getting overwhelmed. What Allen invites us to do is to change our reason for collecting our tasks into one place. Rather than do it only to be discouraged and overwhelmed by all we have to do, we should be collecting it so that it doesn’t have to remain in our mind, nagging us, anymore.

With what seems to me to be good psychology, Allen says that whenever we apply phrases like “should do,” “need to do,” or “ought to,” to a task, it is filed in our minds as an incomplete- and as such becomes an “open loop.” These open loops, as long as they are open, take up space in the back of our minds. Energy and attention is always siphoned into them, creating those nagging feelings we’re all too familiar with. The more of these loops we have, firing off at the simplest cue when we are trying to do other things, the more anxiety is produced. I think he’s right on the money here.

So, the purpose of collecting everything into an exterior space is to take these open loops out of our mind. This can be done with anything- a legal pad, a computer file, or on a smartphone (the book was originally published in 2001, so he refers several times to PDAs and Palm Pilots, which I think is kinda funny. We’ll just say smartphones…). The important thing is that it’s easily accessible in a moment when we need to record something, and is easily accessible when we go through the other four steps.

I had a roommate who was really good with lists. Too good. Like, OCD good. He made lists of all kinds- shopping lists, to-do lists, lists of characteristics he was looking for in a wife, everything. I about lost it when I saw him sit down and title a list “Lists to Make.”

You get the idea.

Anyway, I admired his diligence, but his system wasn’t very practical. he put all his lists on 3×5 index cards, then put several of them in a labeled ziploc baggie. My aim is to be as diligent as he was, but more organized.

So, Action Item for this post: set up a system for collecting everything I need to get done. The Evernote app comes highly recommended, but I’ve never used it. That’s going to be the first thing I try. I’ll be downloading it tonight.


So, that’s step 1: collect everything that demands my attention into one place so I can close the loops in my mind and find some peace in a busy life.

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