Open Loops – A Motivation Hack From The Big Bang Theory

Sheldon Cooper Is Neurotic

Today I want to tell you about an interesting motivation “hack”, using something called open loops. But before I do that, I need to explain why it works.


Have you ever seen the episode of The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon has a compulsive desire for closure, so his girlfriend, Amy decides to help him, using “therapy”? She spends a day with him, doing everything from playing tic tac toe but stopping just before the final move, to setting up a large arrangement of dominos and then packing them up without letting Sheldon get the enjoyment of toppling them.

It drives Sheldon nuts, and after Amy leaves he frantically races around his apartment to finish all of the activities she tortured him with. It’s pretty funny. If you haven’t seen it before, I’ve included a link to it here.

What Are Open Loops?

Not everyone is as neurotic as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, but we all have have an instinctual need for closure. Leaving things unfinished or unresolved essentially creates “mental loose ends”, which are commonly referred to as open loops. Our need to close these open loops is the result of something called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is commonly used to describe a disparity between your beliefs or values and your behavior, such as the little voice in your head that shames you for eating those cookies when you’re trying to lose weight (or so you say). But cognitive dissonance can also come from any situation where you expect something to happen and it doesn’t, or you need to do something but can’t do it right now, or you want to know something but can’t find the answer or have to wait for it. It creates a psychological tension and discomfort that motivates you to resolve the issue or find the answer.

This is one of the main tenets in the landmark productivity book Getting Things Done, by David Allen. He champions the idea that the brain is made for having great ideas, not for storing them. When your brain is cluttered with dozens or even hundreds of open loops, they constantly vie for your attention, making it hard for you to focus on anything or for new ideas to rise above the noise.

Blame Your Monkey Brain

So why does your brain crave closing these open loops? It’s because you have a primitive instinct that says anything unknown or unresolved means potential danger. 20,000 years ago, if you didn’t care to understand what those unfamiliar animal tracks were around your camp or to figure out why certain members of your clan were getting sick while others weren’t, then you were less likely to stick around. So this tendency for unresolved issues to nag you until you resolve them is one of the reasons we survived as a species, and that's why you still carry that trait with you today.

Chip and Dan Heath talk about this in their excellent book, Made to Stick. These open loops are one of the things that they found makes ideas “sticky”. Many of the things you see on TV and the internet today are specifically designed to take advantage of this psychological quirk. Ever seen a blog post headline or email subject line that made clicking on it virtually irresistible? Admit it, you have. I have too. We all do it.

Open Loops Make You Irresistibly Irrational

On a conscious, rational level, you realize that the contents of that article or email are probably unimportant, but what if it really does contain that secret to losing weight you’ve been missing all these years? Can you afford to take the chance of missing the opportunity to learn that secret by not clicking on it? Leaving that question unresolved causes more psychological anguish than the 30 seconds it takes to click on the article and scan through its contents. So, what do you do? You click.

This is the same reason that TV series cliffhangers have people talking about it all over social media and internet forums for weeks, and why those same fans are dying to find out what happens in the season premier. It’s also why video game designers intentionally make their games an endless series of open loops, where there’s always another challenge to complete, another weapon or skill to acquire, and another level to reach.

Make It Work For You

So how do use this quirk to your advantage? The answer is to build open loops into anything where you struggle with motivation. When you avoid doing something, a big part of the challenge is simply overcoming the inertia of inaction. Once you finally get started, you usually find that the task is not nearly as painful or difficult as you imagined it would be. So, using this trick will help you get over the hump to get moving, and then it’s much easier to just keep going.

If you’re an author writing a book or a student writing a research paper, as you are getting a thought out of your head, stop writing in mid sentence. If you’ve been wanting to paint your living room a different color, take out a brush and paint just a small, odd-shaped splotch right in the middle of one wall. If you’re having trouble going to the gym, purposely leave something you use often or enjoy in your locker (like your Fitbit, or a book you’re reading). Get creative with it. See how many different types of open loops you can come up with.

This isn’t a foolproof tactic, but it’s definitely an interesting hack that’s worth trying out. I’ve been using it when I write scripts for these videos, and it definitely helps me to get started.

Let me know what you think, and how you’re putting this tactic to use in your life. I’d love to hear some of the creative ideas you come up with for creating open loops. I’ll probably even steal a few of them to use in my life!