Open Loops

Early in David Allen’s Getting Things Done[1], his well-received book on productivity, he talks about “open loops.” The idea has resonated with me ever since reading that. Here’s a good link that talks about this idea (with further references), though I’ll bring up some of the highlights.

  • An open loop is something that is on our minds, something we’re trying to process or hold onto.
  • There are a finite number of open loops one can hold at a given time. (I want to say I read that there’s around 7, but my memory of that is fuzzy.)
  • Open loops are distractions if they aren’t about the task on hand. When you say that you’re pre-occupied, that’s saying you have an open loop going on.
  • Open loops aren’t limited in scope — they can just as easily be about a relationship issue, random tangent brought up in the middle of reading something, a question popping in your head, something that someone else brings up in passing that now has your attention, thinking about what to get at the grocery store tonight, etc.
  • We’re wired to close open loops — which, if you apply this to broader psychological concepts, gets really interesting.

Talking open loops is one of the keys to productivity in general and the GTD method in specific. And I’ve applied that to two elements of my life: in my creative efforts, and in my editing process.

Creative Efforts

Any time I have an open loop come up, I write down just enough to close it. The various ways I tackle that:

  • Scrawl a note on paper
  • Add a task to my Wunderlist
  • Type a note or take a voice memo on my iPhone and mailing it to myself
  • Open a new document in Google or add to an existing one
  • Write a blog or G+ post (as I did the other day for a setting idea)

This process is always useful. Sometimes all it does it free up my mind to focus, and sometimes it results in a new project or usable piece of an existing project. (I can’t tell you how many times I add to my “Technocracy Line Notes” document in a given week, and I’m glad I have this process.)

This frees up my mind to not have to remember shit, as well. And that’s really key for someone who is starting to suffer from memory problems that I used to not have.[2]

Editing Process

When I’m doing developmental editing and text design, I’m on the hunt for open loops created by texts. Any time there’s a question brought up tangentially, I eyeball that to see if that’s a good use of an open loop. Since text design is largely about brain-hacking, sometimes creating open loops is key to cementing understanding.

However, sometimes they’re distractions that hinder understanding. I harp open on overviews and forward references because those close two common loops: “What’s next?” and “Huh, that just got brought up. Are they about to address it?” That said, there’s an art to the forward reference — if you forward reference without making it clear the content, “Huh, I wonder what they’re going to talk about?” is another potential open loop.

(If memory serves, I had this in Dungeon World’s red book with a sidebar mention of the thief’s poison moves, wondering what was going to be talked about in the forward reference.)

The forward reference allows one who has that open loop happen to the point of distraction jump forward to close the loop. It’s not necessarily an ideal reading flow, bue because of the interconnectedness and non-linear nature of rulebooks, that can’t always be helped.

“What’s next?” is an interesting question, because it’s useful when the text experience is crafted right, but if that question is asked from a stance of reader distrust, it’s detrimental.[3]


That’s what a basic understanding of open loops has done for my creative life. I recommend people learn more about how they work and how to apply solving and using them to your lives.

– Ryan

[1] Which, perhaps ironically, I never finished. I should sometime.

[2] Hopefully not a critical issue; I suspect it’s just because at 34 I’m at a point where I’m reaching capacity and starting to ditch stuff.

[3] But that’ll have to be a future topic.


5 Responses to Open Loops

  1. Ryan Macklin says:

    Eddy Webb just pointed out to me that game design is often about creating open loops, and I facepalmed at that omission (done maybe because I writing this post quickly while on a break).

    That’s possibly it’s own follow-up post.

    – Ryan

  2. Blackcoat says:

    I do this all the time.

    My biggest problem is closing the loops. I have a “ideas” document that’s approaching 200 pages at this point, all of ideas no more then a single page, most of them just a couple of lines.

    The last time I went through it, I counted four instances of “clean out ideas document”

  3. Funny, I had exactly the same reaction to (not finishing) Getting Things Done. The “open loops” concept is really helpful. Applying it to textual design…huh, I hadn’t thought of that before….

  4. Andy says:

    That’s a great observation–it puts something very important into words. I hadn’t thought about game design like that, but it’s very true. The games which are easier to understand are the ones which give you immediate answers. That would also explain why writing down stuff during Traveller or Burning Wheel character creation is so helpful: it temporarily closes the loop.

    Also, this post needs more Joseph-Gordon Levitt. ;-)

  5. John Powell says:

    You’d probably be interested in personal kanban too. It’s also based on on the idea that things we haven’t completed eat at us constantly, and on the reciprocal notion that things we have completed we forget almost instantly. We trap ourselves into feeling bad about stuff we haven’t done while simultaneously not giving ourselves credit for things we have completed.