Overtaxed by all the unfinished tasks hanging over you? There is a solution | Oliver Burkeman

Don’t you feel it, all the time, these days: that almost physical sense of your brain just being too full? Perhaps it’s full of all the tasks you’re trying to complete while also caring for your kids; or full of worry about whether you’ll keep your job; or full of fury at the outrageous pronouncements of mendacious fools on social media, or nebulous fear for the future of humanity. Whatever the details, though, I suspect you’re familiar with the feeling that some cognitive limit is rapidly being approached.

What’s the answer? Well, large-scale socioeconomic change, competent politicians and a worldwide renewal of civic spirit. Obviously. But in the meantime, allow me to remind you of a calming life-management tip you might have forgotten, or maybe never even heard of: you really, really ought to be capturing your open loops.

This terminology comes from the nearly 20-year-old bestseller Getting Things Done, by the productivity guru David Allen, in which he defines an open loop as any kind of commitment or task that’s hanging around in your life, but that you haven’t yet properly dealt with. The report you’re writing for work is an open loop, as is the birthday gift you need to send to your cousin. But so, too, is that idea you had about setting up a community garden, or your longing to one day visit the pyramids, or pretty much anything else. Allen’s theory – profoundly true, in my experience – is that your brain is no good at storing open loops, and relying on it to do so fuels background anxiety, because they act as a drag on your attention – popping up unbidden at unhelpful times, or leaving you constantly worried there’s something you’re forgetting.

It follows, therefore, that if you store them somewhere else – in what Allen calls a “trusted system” – then your brain can stop struggling to retain them, and you’ll find yourself more focused and relaxed, even without having completed a single one. At the most basic level, this means selecting an app, or opening a text file, or buying a physical notebook, and keeping a list – or a series of subdivided lists – of everything that’s on your plate. Start with a brain-dump of every open loop you can think of; then resolve to add new items as soon as they float into your mind.

If this sounds like nothing more than keeping a to-do list, well, yes it is. But the crucial point is to do so impeccably: to capture absolutely everything, religiously, and to put it all in one place, not in multiple apps, or sticky notes scattered across your workspace. (If your subconscious can’t fully trust the system, anxiety will creep back in.)

The payoff for taking the matter so seriously is that you then won’t have to obtain all your peace of mind from completing every item on the list – and a good thing, too, as it’s almost certainly too much for one person to handle. When I find myself scattered and stressed, it’s often because I’ve stopped faithfully capturing open loops, relying instead on my overtaxed brain. Resuming the practice brings an instant dose of relief. Life’s demands aren’t going to stop feeling overwhelming; but you can start using better tools to keep track of it all.

Listen to this

Artists, writers, and others reflect on their real – as opposed to ideal – daily routines in the podcast Routines and Ruts, hosted by Madeleine Dore.

The Guardian

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