‘Open loops’ nearly killed my career

Dr Isaiah Hankel shares his experiences as an EA to help guide you through the struggle of ‘Open Loops’ and how to pull yourself through them.

I was an EA for the CEO of a biochemistry company. When I started, the work was intense and every task I was given was already late. By the end of my first week I had so many tasks running through my mind and so little guidance, that I was struggling to keep these tasks organized. I was also struggling to maintain my composure.

Writing down these tasks didn’t help much. In fact, I had so many to-do lists written that my to-do lists had their own to-do lists.

This was my life – lists on top of lists on top of lists, and always being one step behind. I suddenly realized that my career as an EA would be short lived. Then, I read an article about somebody with a funny last name (at least funny to me at the time)… Zeigarnik. This Zeigarnik person had discovered something called “open loops”. Apparently, these loops were the reason I was performing poorly in my new EA role.

These open loops are nothing more than an open task, such as booking travel for a CEO. Until the travel is booked, the open task consumes your mental energy by staying active in your working memory. Here’s the problem – you only have so much space in your working memory. The good news is that once you close one of these loops (book the travel), the task is deleted from your working memory.

The problem with your to-do lists…
As an EA, you likely live and die by your lists. Not only do they serve as a brain dump to give you a visual of all the balls you’re juggling, they serve as validation and proof of work justifying your workload and making you feel more in control.
The problem with this system is that to-do lists are task-oriented, not detailed plans for goal achievement.

The first reason is because the average to-do list exhibits heterogeneous complexity. In other words, the list contains some tasks that will take 10 seconds to complete, some that will take 10 minutes to complete, and some that will take 10 hours to complete; but they’re all on the same list.

The second reason is because the average to-do list displays heterogeneous priority. Most to-do lists lack both context and a hierarchy. This means the tasks that are most important to you “right now” will take top priority, even if they are a low priority overall.

The solution to the above two problems lies in segmenting your tasks into prioritised loops that are easy to close and aligned with your peak states of mental energy. This will ensure that you stay poised, organised and professional at all times.

Start by tracking your mental energy levels…
Not everything on your current to do list needs to be listed. Not every item on that list holds equal weight either. Or requires equal effort. You have to know how to assign your tasks to your own personal energy patterns.

Start by taking the next three days and check in with yourself, every hour. Note when you’re distracted, and why, when you’re tired, as well as when you feel sharp and in an effortless flow of productivity. After three days, take a look at your patterns.

End by obeying “The Law of Relaxed Productivity…”
As an EA, you know that the constant influx of electronic messages is a chronic issue. Scientific studies show that people who tried to juggle incoming messages while working showed IQ dips that were equal to missing an entire night’s sleep or smoking marijuana.

The most productive people work best when they’re focused and relaxed at the same time. This is called The Law of Relaxed Productivity, which states, that “The more effective your process, the more productive you will be.” Most EA’s are incredibly productive overall, but pay for it with high levels of stress. Then, there are hose who are relaxed but have poor productivity. Being truly successful as an EA means you learn how to master both.


Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D is the author of The Science of Intelligent Achievement: How Smart People Focus, Create and Grow their Way to Success. He is an expert on mental focus, behavioural psychology and career development. His book Black Hole Focus was a business bestseller internationally