“Nature abhors a vacuum.” Aristotle is generally credited with this saying. While it may or may not be true in physics (there is some debate, and that is not the subject of this post), it is most definitely true of humans.
Human beings have a low tolerance for “incompletes”. That’s why serial television shows are so successful. Each episode ends by opening up a mystery to be solved only by watching the next episode.
That’s why there are so many successful book series (we feel compelled to read all the Wheel of Time books, for instance.) Each book ends leaving some story threads incomplete – and we by our very nature long to fill that vacuum.
Our low tolerance for “incompletes”, or as they are sometimes called, “open loops”, is also responsible for a great deal of generalized anxiety. Many of us go through our daily lives with our “stress meter” running at a low level of anxiety all the time, only because we have so many open loops buzzing in our subconscious.
A friend (let’s call him Fargo) called me yesterday and told me he was feeling “weird” but didn’t know why.I asked him what “weird” meant.
I asked him what “weird” meant.
He said, “Well, I feel kind of edgy, my pulse rate is up, and I feel restless. ”
“You mean you’re feeling anxiety?” I said.
“No,” he insisted. “I’m not anxious. I just feel weird. Kind of jumpy. Like something is about to happen… holy oatmeal, you’re right. This is anxiety. But I don’t have anything I’m worried about! How can I be anxious?”
Good question – one that lots of people ask. The answer is: the “open loops” in your life cause anxiety, even if none of them are a real “problem”. Just like running too many apps in the background causes your computer or tablet to slow down or even freeze up, having too many open loops in your subconscious has the same effect on your brain.
What can you do?
I gave Fargo a task I told him would relieve most of his anxiety. He was skeptical, but agreed to try it. I’ll share that same advice with you now.
This kind of exercise was made famous by David Allen, in his seminal work Getting Things Done. My version of the exercise includes a few modifications, but the basic idea is the same.
Most of us operate with anywhere between 50 and 300 or more “incompletes” or “open loops” in our lives. These range from the mundane to the epic. Anything from, “I need to pick up my laundry” all the way up to, “I need to decide how to proceed with cancer treatment.”
Each open loop consumes a small amount of our positive energy. Even the tiny open loops, like “I need to pick up a light bulb for the kitchen ceiling fan” deplete our mental bandwidth.
Getting rid of the open loops in our lives is not realistic. They multiply. That’s part of living.
Getting rid of the anxiety that’s caused by having all these little loops running in the background of our mind, on the other hand, it actually quite simple.
It’s like cleaning up a very big mess. That's why I call this “The Cleanup”.
Try the following and watch how easy it is to lower your “background anxiety level” to near zero, in just a few short hours (or less.) This is exactly the process I gave to my friend Fargo (I'll tell you about his results at the end of this article). Let's get you started…
- Make a list of all the “incompletes” or “open loops” in your life. Take some time to get them all. Every last thing you have to do, down to the smallest thing (“put new toilet paper roll in hall bathroom”). Most people can come up with 50–100 if they just keep writing. To make your list as complete as possible, use these prompts to remind yourself of things you have to do: look through your email (don’t stop to read it – just glance through it long enough to get a list of “to dos” – keep moving)… look through your stack of magazines, catalogs, and physical mail… glance through your calendar 2–3 months back and 2–3 months ahead… walk around your house and your office, pausing in each room and noticing anything that needs to be done. Write all the things down that spring to mind.
- Now take a break, go for a walk, or have a glass of water. Just take a few minutes o let all the mental noise settle from the list you just made. It’s probably got over 100 items on it. The first time I did this exercise, I came up with over 500 things I “had to do”.
- Breathe deeply, pick that list back up, and read through it slowly, looking for items you can simply decide not to do. Maybe you’ll decide you don’t need to shop for a new hat, or go to the book auction, or call Fred (who you don’t much like anyway.) The point is, there are some items on your list you can simply decide to cross off. Do it. Cross off as many as you can. Notice that the world does not end.
- Now you should have a shorter list. The next step is to look for items that can be done in 2 minutes or less, right where you are at this moment, with the tools, time, and energy available to you right now. This is David Allen’s famous “2-minute rule”. The key is you must be able to do it right now. If you have to drive to the office first, and it takes you 5 minutes to get there, this task does not meet the criteria for a 2-minute task. But if the task is to send an email, scan a receipt, take a vitamin, dump the trash, water the petunia… or anything else you can do in less than 2 minutes, do it right now. Most people can finish all their 2-minute tasks in under an hour. Feel free to just decide not to do some of these, too. Cross each one off after you’ve either done it, or decided not to do it.
- Time to take another breath. You’re probably an hour or two into this process by now, if you’ve done it right. Chances are you’re feeling much less anxiety already – but don’t stop now! Keep going!
- Now look through all your remaining tasks and find the ones you can delegate to someone else. Maybe it’s a job that can be done by your assistant, your spouse, a friend, a family member, or a tradesperson (like a plumber or electrician). The important thing is, don’t hold onto tasks – work hard to let them go! Ask yourself not, “Can anyone do this better than me?”, but rather ask, “Is it possible someone else could do these at least 80% as well as me?”. If the answer is even “maybe”, be ruthless. Delegate it. Shoot for delegating at least 50% of your remaining list. More if you can stomach it. Most people have a hard time with this, claiming it’s just not possible. Hogwash. If had a sudden invitation to go on an extended, all-expense paid vacation for the next six weeks, somehow almost all the items on this list would be taken care of by someone. I’m just suggesting you to assign it to the someone now, without needing a vacation as motivation. Write the name of the person you are delegating the task to next to the item on your list. Once you’ve assigned all the tasks you possibly can by writing a name beside the task – actually delegate the task to a person! Send them an email (best, because you don’t have to engage in a conversation right now) spelling out what you need done, and the date when you want it completed. If the delegation does require a conversation, start a separate list on a clean sheet of paper, and write the word CALLS at the top of the page. On that page, make a list of everyone you need to call to assign them a task. Call them, or set an appointment on your calendar to make all these calls in a single session.
- Once again, your list should be whittled down considerably. Maybe you’re down to 50 or fewer tasks. You should be at 25% or less than your original list.
- Next step: schedule the remaining tasks on your calendar. Whatever you do, don’t make another list! First, look for the tasks that have an externally imposed deadline (like paying your income taxes). Estimate how much time you realistically think the task will take. Be serious about this. Got a time estimate in mind? Good. Now double it. Then block out doubled estimate on your calendar, well in advance of the due date, to get it done.
- If you’re like most people, you’ve now got your list slimmed down to the last 10% or so. And these items are either big projects, or big personal issues. For the projects, set an appointment with yourself (and any key stakeholders in the project) to brainstorm what the next steps are, and to decide who owns those steps. But what about those “big personal issues”? Read on…
- Now you’re down to the “incompletes” — what I would call “messes” in your life. These are things like the family member you need to reconcile with… the difficult relationship decision you need to make… the unhealthy behavior pattern of a co-worker or business partner you need to confront… even your own addictive behavior for which you need to seek help. And so on. These are the big, tough issues that we so often sweep under the rug, promising ourselves we will deal with them “someday”. Hint: when would now be the right time to deal with these? For each of these issues, decide on one positive, next logical step you can take to set that task in motion. Maybe it’s calling the person you need to confront and asking if you can meet together. Perhaps it’s writing a note to someone asking their forgiveness. Or it might be a matter of finding out where the local meeting is being held where you can get help with your addictive behavior. You most likely already know what needs to be done with each of these items. Just commit, and take the first step that requires you to “stick your neck out”.
By now, you may have spent anywhere from 1 hour to an entire day on this process, but you should have every item on your list either deleted, delegated, done, scheduled, or in process.
Two final points that you may find helpful:
- Review your list, make sure every item has been either deleted, delegated, done, scheduled, or is in process… and if so, throw the list away. This is an important symbolic act that tells your brain, “This garbage has been dealt with. You can close the loops on these.”
- Pray about your list, the decisions you made, and the steps you took. Ask God for His help, wisdom, and favor in dealing with the remaining steps. Make your requests of Him, thank Him in advance, and let His peace wash over you.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6–7 (NKJV)
Notice how you feel. Fargo told me that after doing “The Cleanup”, he felt as if a hundred pounds had been lifted from his shoulders. That low-level, background anxiety was gone.
This process works. All you have to do is follow the steps. Clear the clutter from your mind, close the open loops, and clean up your messes. You’ll enjoy a peace you may not have felt for years.
Have you used this or a similar process for reducing your anxiety, and if so, what were the results?