More on open loops

I’ve been thinking some more about “precrastination” along with the concept of “open loops” and the human desire to close them. We’ve established that closing an open loop frees up brainpower/attention/energy for other things and gives us a psychological boost. We’ve also established that sometimes we’ll close a loop just to get that psychological boost, even if there are benefits to leaving the loop unclosed a little longer. And that sometimes we will pick a loop-closing action over an action that might be more important, but doesn’t close a loop. (Paying your credit card bill instead of writing the Great American Novel?)

Since last week’s post, I’ve been trying to work out: what’s the rule here? When is loop-closing good and when is it bad? If paying your credit card bill in two weeks’ time would take just as long as it will take today, how the hell is paying it now going to set you back in writing the Great American Novel? In fact, doesn’t paying it off now free up some brainpower and focus for your Very Important Writing?

Then I started thinking about the less helpful type of loop-closing. I thought about the very few times I’ve handed in a written assignment earlier than I absolutely had to, at school or university. It was almost always because I realised before handing it in that I’d missed something. Maybe I’d missed an insight that would have made for a much better piece of work; maybe I’d actually misunderstood the instructions and done a different task from the one assigned. Maybe some people in this situation would thank the universe that they’d realised their mistake in time to redo the task, then set to work again. I am not one of those people. My response to this kind of realisation was always to think: “Damn! But I’m not doing it twice,” and hand it in immediately, because I was afraid that if I didn’t submit it immediately I might change my mind.

In other words, I closed a loop by shifting the work of dealing with my mistake towards the teacher or professor who would be marking the work. In many ways, it was a rational strategy, because the work never counted towards any kind of final grade. Nevertheless, I was closing a loop by submitting sub-standard work. I think most unhelpful loop-closing is done in this spirit: it means choosing not to engage as fully as you could, and/or pushing work onto someone else.

The professor Adam Grant wrote a recent-ish  article in the New York Times on “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate“. He’s a classic precrastinator. He feels a strong compulsion to submit work early, to the point of submitting his graduate school dissertation two years in advance. (How is that even possible?!) Then he discovered that forcing himself to put off finishing things resulted in better work:

My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking — but I was also missing out on its rewards.

In other words, it was a milder version of my own behaviour when I realised I’d mixed up Celsius and Fahrenheit in my science homework, or had an insight right at the end of writing my essay that would have allowed me to write a much better one. Get it done, get it out of here, try not to think too much, get it handed in. He wasn’t making mistakes as such, but he wasn’t giving himself the luxury of a less streamlined path to “done”. I guess he started experimenting with leaving loops open a little longer because he realised that “complicating thoughts” and “the pain of divergent thinking” can’t be avoided if you’re aiming for an academic career. His conclusion:

[W]hile procrastination is a vice for productivity, I’ve learned — against my natural inclinations — that it’s a virtue for creativity.

I like this way of framing it, but I think it’s unhelpful to call what he’s doing “procrastination”. Creating a schedule which includes built-in time to take a break from your project, then sticking to that schedule and handing in the work before the deadline – in what universe does that count as “procrastination”?

Sadly, some people are brainwashed by the cult of early. With those people, you can explain in advance that you’re getting a task done at a specific time and date, and then do it at that exact time and date, and they’ll still fret about why you didn’t do it sooner. Through that lens, maybe submitting your best possible work before the deadline, in accordance with the schedule you created, somehow counts as “procrastination”. I don’t know, but anyway, fuck those people.

So. What he’s doing is definitely not procrastination. I should know, because I’m a champion procrastinator myself. I think my fellow procrastinators (and there are a lot of us) would agree: the reason we hand things in at the last minute has nothing to do with carefully scheduled time-outs to “explore divergent thinking” and everything to do with messing around until the deadline gets too close for comfort.

Both procrastinator and precrastinator are choosing to spend less time and energy on the task than the absolute maximum, which seems pretty rational. But the precrastinator has realistic expectations, sets their boundaries in advance and closes the loop sooner, while the procrastinator probably has vague good intentions that don’t translate into anything in reality until the Panic Monster shows up.

Either way, the work eventually gets done and the loop gets closed for both of them. And either way, maybe the work could have been better if the person had spent more time on it. Yes, open loops take energy and focus – but what if the student decides that it’s worth spending more energy and focus to write a better essay?

So I have an unhelpful answer to the question about how you tell the difference between “good” loop-closing and “bad” loop-closing: it’s up to you. It’s about where you choose to spend your time and energy. Maybe you don’t want or need to write the best possible essay every time; maybe your choice is to only do that for the topics you really care about, or maybe your choice is to do the bare minimum for each essay and focus on exam revision instead, or maybe your choice is to get everything in early so you can focus on your paid job or your caring responsibilities. And that is fine, because it’s up to you.

Even the kind of loop-closing that just involves bouncing the work to someone else can be fine in certain contexts. The “quick question trick” is a loop-closing technique  where you bounce a vague request back to the asker and force them to do the work of framing it. It’s a way of closing a loop by pushing the work to somebody else – and it’s 100% justified, because that person has no claim to your time. Just don’t kid yourself that you’re doing real work when you’re really just kicking the can down the road. Be clear in your own mind that your choices about what loops to close are really choices about where to allocate your brainpower. I have more to write about this  but damn, it’s been over 1200 words already. See you next week.

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