The magic of open loops

Last week I compared the university student who hands their essay in much earlier than necessary (the precrastinator) with the student who only starts work at the last minute (the procrastinator). The academic Adam Grant wrote in January about a third option, which he misleadingly describes as procrastination: starting early but deliberately delaying the moment where you finish .

Grant thinks it makes for better writing, and I think I agree. Why? It’s a bit counterintuitive: if you do most of the work on day 1, take days 2 and 3 off and then finish on day 4, why does that make your work better compared to someone who put off starting until the end of day 3? Maybe this is a shocking claim coming from me, someone who’s repeatedly pointed out the dangers of claiming work done at certain times is intrinsically better than work done at other times.  (I guess I need to say again that there is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. )

But I’m not talking about the times as such. I’m talking about the process. When you start the task on day 1, you’re opening a loop in your head. Open loops claim our attention, even when we’re not actively working on closing them. In the context of the meeting your boss keeps postponing or the letter you keep forgetting to post, that’s pretty annoying. In the context of a piece of creative-ish brainwork, an open loop allows a bit of your brain to keep running on it in the background, maybe coming up with new ideas and insights. (Even if you get none of that from your enforced time out, you will at least get a fresh perspective that lets you read through your work a bit more dispassionately and maybe even spot your own typos.) Your essay will be better because it’s had more of your attention.

I think this is one of the reasons why we put off starting big but non-urgent things. Once you get going on something, even if it’s just engaging with the planning stage, you have an open loop and the concomitant pull of attention towards it. And maybe we worry that the really big things, the things we really care about, will demand more attention and time and brainpower than we have to offer. What if that open loop swallows our lives? Shouldn’t we just keep putting it off until that mythical time in the future when we have no commitments and infinite energy? Because nobody can judge you for not starting, but what if they judge you for starting and failing? I understand this mindset only too well, but I like the quote misattributed to Goethe:

What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

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