Writing, Edits, The Internet, and Open Loops

On another post here, Dr. E. Miller wrote:

Putting off editing to another session works for many people. I would end up re-writing or, worse, never getting back to it. Right now, I have something like 15 drafts sitting in my blogging space, most of which are from the past six months. Some go back years.
The only time I put off editing immediately is when my replacement words, phrases, and sentences become too unwieldy to make Then I know I have to stop and come back. Usually, immediate editing works best for me. Different strokes, and all that. I am just one big enigma!
Thanks for your insights!

and I replied:

Sounds like the edit process is an “open loop” for you. ANOTHER idea for a blog post. Thank you! (But, sometimes “open loops” can be cured with timers, doing them at a restaurant an hour before closing time where you are forced to quit, etc.)
Edit: I would like to clarify what I am saying here. (Was interrupted by a phone call.) “Open loop” processes lack feedback to regulate them. In some cases, this means that they can go on endlessly, or when something does eventually shut them down they have caused damage in some way (usually by consuming too many resources). Informally, we see this “in real life” in addiction where, say, a “normal” person has two drinks and quits but the alcoholic simply “cannot stop” until something external (“running out,” police officer, death) shuts down the process. This happens when people (including me) “get lost in the internet.” David Allen uses it informally to refer to what might also be called “unfinished business” that occupies our attention when we should be working on something else. See, also:https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/19391/what-is-an-open-loop

This is another excuse, er, “opportunity” for a blog post!  (Please read the entire article start to finish before you start clicking links.  Otherwise, you might get trapped, or lost, by an “open loop.”  More about that in a moment.)

The field of cybernetics is considered “complex” by many, and for good reason!  The words of Von Neuman, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, and Gregory Bateson can be challenging to read and understand.  But they affected our lives in major ways, and I would like to give each of them a little credit before I move to the main point of this article:

  • John von Neuman: among other things, developed the “von Neuman” architechture of “modern” (post-1950) computers.  If you use a desktop, laptop, tablet, smart phone, or any other “smart” device, then you are using one or more devices built with von Neuman architecture.  (You have him to thank.)
  • Claude Shannon: arguably developed “information theory” that permitted the development, as we know it, of communications channels such as cellular communications (cell phones of any kind), the Internet, satellite (and cable) television, and more.  He also developed the concept of “channel capacity,” an important concept later embodied in Dunbar’s Number, an estimate of our upper limits for relations with other humans.
  • Alan Turing: developed such critically important ideas as the “algorithm,” the “Turing machine,” and important concepts in cryptography.  In addition to being a von Neuman architecture, the tablets, computers, and smart phones you use are also “Turing machines.”  You can learn more about his life by watching “The Imitation Game.”
  • Finally, Gregory Bateson was a contemporary of the previous three, and he applied these same kinds of ideas of “cybernetics” to Anthropology and the emerging field of Family Therapy.  (Arguably, Bateson was one of the founders of Family Therapy.)  What Bateson REALLY told us is that all of these “nerd” ideas can be applied to people and real life situations. (You might prefer this video or this one.) Of the four, it is Bateson that interests me the most, and he is the least well known to the general public.

So, what’s the main point?  What does any of this have to do with writing, editing, and productivity?

Among other things, the Family Therapists sometimes think that “problems” can be a failure of feedback loops.  (These feedback loops are a concept from cybernetics.)  Working feedback loops are (most of the time) “negative feedback loops” like a thermostat that keeps the temperature constant in your home during the cold of winter or heat of summer.  (In physiology, and in family therapy, these negative feedback loops are called homeostasis.)

But, sometimes, these feedback loops fail (or are absent).  This can be explained by any of a number of reasons, but the result is the same: something or someone spirals out of control.  Your home becomes freezing cold.  Or it becomes so hot that a heat stroke becomes a danger.  A person does not stop at “two drinks” but continues drinking, alcoholically, until the “run out,” “pass out,” a police officer stops them, or they die.

More benevolently, you surf the internet too long and do not get your shopping done or check deposited and that causes problems.  A teenager plays video games for hours on end, neglecting chores, physical activity, and “normal” friends.  The list can go on indefinitely.  All of these can be described as “open loops.”  (Open loops cause a failure in “closure.”  A “closed loop” is a properly functioning negative feedback system, which terminates some process when a criterion is met.  And if you became “lost” in the process of making a list of open loops?  THAT would be an example of being caught by an open loop also!)

So, how to handle these?  The answer is not always simple, but it can be.  An old friend of mine, from years ago, taught me the trick.  (He was familiar with the same concepts of negative feedback and homeostasis as I am.  He, quite explicitly, was applying them.)  We tended to have conversations that would last many hours into the night.  They were, to be certain, “open loops.”  His solution was simple: we moved the conversation to a bookstore similar to a Barnes and Noble (actually, it was a Books-A-Million).  When closing time arrived at 11 PM on Friday or Saturday, the conversation was over.

You can stop an open loop, whether it is regarding too many edits or being on the internet “too long.”  Put in a hard barrier, a time fence (these are popular with supply chain managers), to help regulate your behavior.  That, in turn, can make your life MUCH better, and you can move on to other problems to solve, like how to implement a “Daily Edit Exercise.” [Edit: Some people use the Pomodoro Technique to help with this when working on a project or in their daily work setting.]

But, then, that is a topic for another blog entry.

Please do note that any attempt to “explain” “why” the open loop has happened can lead to an open loop itself!  You will become trapped by that!  (This is informally called “paralysis by analysis.”)  “Why?” is typically dangerous and irrelevant.  BUT “HOW” (to stop it) is useful.

As an aside, in his GTD (“Getting Things Done“) method, David Allen has the concept of the “open loop.”  It is similar, if not the same, to the “open loop” we describe here except that it tends to be something that occupies your attention when your attention would be better used if it were focused elsewhere in what Mr. Allen calls a “mind like water.”



Author: Grandtrines

Like so many people, I am a paradox. I am a politically conservative vegetarian. I am from a Christian background, and still tend to like those values, but am a metaphysical astrologer trained in science who has an interest in the magic of ancient Egypt and a weird belief that some piece of our essence can live on a server. I live in Texas, but like chatting with my international Wordpress pals the best. I learn by teaching. Technically, I am a "Leo," but I am very, very Aquarian with a dose of Scorpio. I bitterly complain about Algol (and Algol personaliites), yet it is the one star that defines me most (other than Regulus). (Which, oddly, makes me an Algol personality.) I am a reclusive lover of peace and quiet who has the Ascendant in the Via Combusta (the most conflict ridden part of the zodiac). I am an incredibly private person with a blog with over 800 followers and 50 to 150 regular daily visitors. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

38 thoughts on “Writing, Edits, The Internet, and Open Loops”

    1. Thanks! David Allen’s GTD is very popular, though I have never been quite successful in implementing it. Maybe time to revisit it? What do you think? (Do you do it? Have you tried it before?)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hmm, I don’t see this structure of GTD working for me. While conceptually I get it and wish I could execute, I think my mind will naturally rebel at how much structure there is to his theory. Sigh!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am certain you already know how that works: you select the structure that “works best” for you (or “optimizes your productivity,” if you prefer).

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Well, you have to do what works. Too rigid often does not work. Too “flexible” often does not either. Somewhere between the two….


  1. I would agree with your idea of, “time fences.” Many of the memoirs I’ve read by accomplished authors, in addition to how-to books, indicate writing should be habitual. When you make something habitual you are assigned a time to it. “I will start, writing/editing/blogging at this time every day and I will stop at this time.”
    One thing I noticed as I read through your blog post was the issue of getting lost in research – the open loop as you explained. Stephen King in his book, On Writing, talks about “Shutting the door.” In essence, he is talking about writing without outside influence. Writing in seclusion.

    His book, From a Buick 8, is written from the viewpoints of police officers in Pennsylvania dealing with a supernatural situation. The idea came to him at a gas station. King explained he knew nothing about police officers or police work. Regardless, he knew what the story would be and wrote the idea. After it was done, then he began doing research to ensure the story made sense. Not so he could explain every facet of police life, but so his characters were speaking and acting consistent with their profession.

    The takeaway here is to write your idea from your unique viewpoint. Let it sit, then review it. Is it strong enough to stand on its own? If it is, ask yourself if more facts and information will make the work more technical, or if it will make it more enjoyable (depending on the context of your book/blog this may not be a bad thing).

    Having a back-log of blogs/books to edit isn’t necessarily a bad thing (having nothing to say would be worse). I think most writers have a few works sitting around collecting dust. They grew attached to them during the creation process, but realized after they were completed they probably didn’t have a chance to be published. Instead of throwing them into the fire, we sit and think about them occasionally and fantasize about how we will re-write and bring them to life. The important thing, in my opinion, is to continue writing and creating.

    Best of luck – hopefully I offered something with all of this rambling.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you have GREAT ideas here. I have read the same thing about habitual writing (probably from some of the same sources) as well as the Power of Habit in other ways. (See, also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_of_Habit) You also offer support for an idea that came to me recently in another dialog on this topic: the “Daily Edit Exercise.” This would be an OLD work that is cleaned up during some time fence as an exercise. Over time, those “few works sitting around collecting dust” can be transformed from diamonds in the rough into polished gemstones. (I actually saw John Grisham speak, years ago, and he mentioned precisely this kind of thing. His first novel was a bust, but after he had a bestseller (“The Firm”) he polished the first novel and turned it into a bestseller (“A Time to Kill”; https://www.amazon.com/Time-Kill-Novel-John-Grisham/dp/0440245915).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How interesting that this topic is so closely tied with my Digital Detox blog! Amazing how the internet, the links in your article, possibly my ADD 🙂 all contribute to the creation of open loops with the inability to close them. I’m guilty as charged. And I agree, time boxing an activity while simplistic is still the most effective method of closing the loop. I actually scanned your article before starting to read and had to prepare myself to not click on any links until I got to the end. Then I see your comment about doing this exact same thing and it made me laugh aloud. A few other methods that work for me on a case-by-case basis are assigning time for an activity – not writing my blog until my chores are done. My need to write is so strong, I get my chores done in optimum time so I can get to what I want to do. It’s like eating your veggies before you can have dessert. Another way is limiting the number of tries for a particular day. I was trying to knit and kept missing the stitch and getting madder. The next day, I set 3 as my tries, failed and 3 the day after. Day 3, I realized I don’t have the patience or talent for this and turned in my needles. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have been playing with a Pomodoro timer today, and I find it helpful also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique and http://pomodorotechnique.com and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CT70iCaG0Gs You also mention some ideas (“eating your veggies before you can have dessert”) that sound remarkably similar to the “Premack Principle” (from behavioral psychology): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premack%27s_principle and http://www.iloveaba.com/2013/01/the-premack-priniciple.html and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCgnOKpMvwA

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Email review 25 min on / minor housecleaning chores 5 min off; Blogging 25 min on / stretching 5 min off;


  3. Oh the dreaded loop. I’ve been there. But I find that keeping a checklist of important tasks. I do the most pressing things first and if I put something off for too long, I get too annoyed that it’s cluttering my list, so I’ll do it so I can just get it done and off the list.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Not sure. Have tried a variety of approaches over the years. The exact solution(s) elude me. I think I have tried everything obvious.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh my God, do I ever relate to “Paralysis by Analysis.” I’ve learned to set the timer on my stove (if I’m writing at home) and when I’m out I set an alarm on my phone, writing in bursts, editing in set time frames, research done in blocks in between as necessary. Breaking it up keeps my brain from going numb and setting parameters is absolutely critical. I’ve found that the days where I get up and say “I’m going to write a lot today…” without any real set rules are the days I don’t get much done and end up in a YouTube or Reddit hole while Netflix streams in the background.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel your pain. That echoes my experience, too! I like the timers! (Been using “Pomodoro timers” lately.)


  5. Great post! I just back-linked it to one of my own on the same topic, posted in 2013 from a brain-based perspective.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”


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