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A lot of people have a to-do list nowadays be it on an app or a scrap (of paper) but who controls who? This article looks at how to reduce to-do list stress by closing open loops.

You know that stress when you don’t even want to think about what is on the list because there is so much? Or that one thing that’s been on there for a while and you either need or feel you should do it…but it’s not getting done?

All of those open loops can wear you down so let’s look at what we can do about lowering that anxiety.

What Are Open Loops?

The concept of “open loops” as far as I know originates from Getting Things Done by David Allen, one of the most popular books written on productivity. Allen describes it as the following:

An Open Loop is anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.

They can be commitments made to yourself or to another person that haven’t yet been fulfilled.

They can be in business as well as personal life. Not necessarily tasks but maybe relational situations left unresolved.

They can be those jobs that you’ve been putting off that you must do but you really can’t be arsed or don’t want to.

People remember uncompleted (this differs slightly to incomplete as it is more of a work in progress) or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

They’re hanging out in limbo in your brain and they drain your mental energy without you really noticing. Think of it like having loads of apps running in the background on your phone that use the battery without you always being aware they are there.

Putting them off and procrastinating hoping they will go away is usually the default strategy for most people but, as I’m sure you can attest, it isn’t always going to get you the best outcome.

Why Open Loops Cause To-Do List Stress

The main reason we find them stressful is that they are unfinished. As humans, we like to complete things, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, tick the box etc. This is known as the Zeigarnik effect and it states that our minds have a natural tendency to focus on incomplete tasks.

If many obligations are left resolved in your mind, they will keep battling for your attention throughout the day and even until you go to sleep.

Having all these open loops can lead to overwhelm, which leads to stress, which means you can’t concentrate on the task at hand due to knowing there are others out there.

Open loops sap mental energy (which is finite). This mental energy could be used for more important loops.

The constant pressure from open loops limits your ability to recharge when you are not at work, leaving less mental energy in the tank when you get into work mode or want to do some Deep Work.

And the loops keep building up. More to-do list tasks. More to-do list stress.

This can lead to procrastination, lower self-esteem and potentially even depression.

[On the topic of procrastination, it dawned on me halfway through writing this article that each paragraph I was constructing (after I had already written bullet notes) was an open loop (within the larger open loop of the unfinished article itself) and the number of paragraphs I envisaged writing did actually overwhelm me slightly so I did procrastinate myself more than usual. This awareness will definitely help me when it comes to writing the next article though.]

Benefits Of Closing Open Loops

Closing your open loops can help you to:

  • Reduce to-do list stress
  • Relax / calm your mind / find some peace
  • Recover mentally as well as physically. This leads to having more mental and physical energy to do the important tasks/projects
  • Improve focus
  • Be more productive (not just busy) and procrastinate less
  • Give you a sense of progress and completion. Don’t forget to give yourself some credit when you do close those loops

How To Reduce Your Open Loops

Take Stock

Before you even start to reduce the number of open loops, you will need to know the current state of play so take stock of all of those that you have at the moment. Make separate lists for personal and professional life if it helps.

Get them ALL out of your head so your brain isn’t taxed trying to store them all.

Capture them by writing them down manually or in a digital document of some sort.

Develop your own system that works for you. I tend to work backwards from yearly aims to monthly OKRs then to weekly tasks with deadlines set throughout the days of the week.

Having all your open loops captured has the added benefit of you not having to worry about forgetting shit – assuming you remember to put them on your list in the first place!

Once you have your list, try to keep it updated daily or weekly. 

Delete Delegate Defer Do

These are known as the 4 D’s of Time Management and are self-explanatory. Looking at your to-do list with these 4 in mind can help you concentrate on doing the right things instead of just being busy.

What can you DELETE or drop from the list? What doesn’t actually need to be done? Is the task aligned with your values and end goals? Do you have room?

Purging your to-do list regularly can help remove some loops, free up some space and lower the overwhelm. I do a purge every month and sometimes every week.

What can you DELEGATE? Is there someone who can do a better job than you or can take it off your hands?

The best way to deal with the problem of overwhelm is to try and avoid it altogether so deleting and delegating remove loops from your to-do list.

The aim is to minimize the work in progress.

What can you DEFER to a later date? What still needs to be done but doesn’t have to be done right now?

What can you DO (now)?

This leads us nicely onto the next section…

Close Some Loops (Do)

After you have delegated, delayed and deleted you can attack the low hanging fruit by using the 2-minute rule – if it would take less than 2 minutes to do, do it immediately. You may as well get it closed and let’s be honest, it isn’t that hard.

Also, do this when new loops come in so they are dealt with and closed immediately.

Now you are hopefully left with your bigger loops so it is time to prioritize where to start.

Schedule some time to do some Deep Work. This is the uninterrupted time where you do your more mentally taxing loops.

For the larger and more overwhelming tasks, break them down into actionable steps. Ask:

“What is it I actually need to do to get this done?”

This article is more about bringing awareness to what is on your plate rather than how to do the tasks. There a is a sh*t tonne of methods to actually do the work but I won’t go into those here.

Avoid Opening New Loops

To reduce the number of open loops on your to-do list an obvious, but often forgotten technique is to not add any more.

Or, at least delay opening new ones until you main tasks are done. A popular method is to avoid any emails (which usually lead to more open loops / other people’s requests for your time) first thing and only check after you have closed some off.

Know your boundaries. Are you being proactive or reactive (playing whack-a-mole)?

Can you set some boundaries to reduce the number of moles? Don’t be afraid to say “No”.

If you are looking to add another loop to the list, ask yourself “Is this something I really want to do?”. Maybe even get into a state where you can ask the real inner you.

Make A Finish Line / Bring The Finish Line Closer

Some loops have no deadline. I bet the ones you have like this are usually left to stay open for a while in favour of other loops? Give your ambiguous open-ended tasks an endpoint. Be specific and use the SMARTER acronym for guidance.

Giving yourself a finish line will help you falling foul to Parkinson’s Law, so set yourself a deadline and get that loop closed. Remember, done is better than perfect. Don’t let perfectionism keep the loop open.

I covered this next part in another article but we can bring the principle over into our to-do list. By bringing the finish line closer you can get more loops closed in a shorter time and also ensure the new ones you are opening are in line with where you still want to go.

Use Tools & Resources

Bring in some support to help you close more loops and reduce to-to list stress. 

Start with an online task list that can be synced with all your devices and either use it alongside a calendar or somewhere where you can schedule the work

Project management type software can also help you keep track of all your open loops as well as the progress you (and your team if you have one) are making on the task.

Use the Eisenhower Matrix to decide which of your tasks are urgent and/or important to give you an idea of where to start and how to prioritize your time. 

Consider getting human support. Use an accountability partner, find a colleague or friend to use as a sounding board, or work with a coach who can help you work out what you really want/need to do and help if there is any resistance or fear around the task.

What If You Can’t Ever Close The Open Loop?

Ok, so this is as simple as count the loops, go close them?

If only.

There will always be more loops and sometimes there will be never-ending loops. For example, if you are a cleaner, you can technically close the loop that day but alas, it reopens again as things get dirty over time.

Having a shutdown ritual can support more effective post-work mental recharging for when you have to leave loops open (either overnight or knowing they may re-open again). Doing simple things such as powering down the laptop and tidying your desk can go toward reducing the mental worry.

Just like you would have a morning ritual to get your mind prepped to start the day. Take that same principle to the end of the workday and train your mind to shut down. Create your own ritual that signals to your brain “good work today bro, time to chill for a while”. Your brain then packs up its pencils, puts them in its pencil case and goes to put it’s slippers on. I don’t know what I have just written there but hopefully, you get the idea. This helps to free the mind from its natural inclination to dwell on uncompleted tasks.

In these cases, it is about control rather than closing. Controlling your mental state so they don’t drive you nuts because open loops can become a constant source of stress if not controlled.


The main reason to close open loops is to reduce to-do list stress. This then frees up mental energy to do the tasks that require it/ones you really wanna do.

Sometimes the root of anxiety (and therefore procrastination) is only a couple of small tasks that you could knock out in an hour or less. Having the awareness of where the stress is coming from is the first step. You then decide to take action accordingly.

There will always be open loops somewhere but try to control them (not the other way around) and make sure the loops you are closing are worthwhile.


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