Corralling my open loops

An Open Loop is anything pulling at your attention that doesn't belong where it is, the way it is.

Getting Things Done

Open loops have been a thorn in my side since I restarted using GTD last year. I have two main issues right now:

  1. There are things I want to do that aren't in my system
  2. There are things in my system that I don't do in time (or at all)

Every one of these open loops nibbles away at my attention. For example, instead of concentrating on writing this post, I'm thinking about how I need to send some emails, submit an invoice, and whether or not I'm due for an eye test, amongst a sea of other things. It's not conducive to being productive.

Let's start with #1 first.

1. Things that aren't in my system

This is probably the easiest one to solve: I need to get better at capturing ideas and then processing them.

Right now there are a dozen different ideas floating around my head. Some of those things I need to do somewhat urgently, others will go straight into my someday/maybe list.

The big issue here is that they're not stored anywhere. I'm usually pretty good at capturing things throughout the day, but I'm not so diligent about performing full mind dumps on a regular basis. I should be doing these at the start of my weekly review, but I tend to skip them as my mind is in "process" mode instead of "create" mode.

Solution - schedule time to perform a full mind dump, separate from my weekly review.

2. Things that are in my system, but don't get done

Most of my day is taken up with work-related activities: writing emails, fixing bugs, and working on existing projects. Concentrating entirely on work projects doesn't give me much time to go through my next actions list, and by the time the evening rolls around I'd rather not be staring at the computer screen for another 4 hours.

All of this results in my list getting longer as the week goes on, which in turn makes me reluctant to add new things to it. Not everything on my next actions list is important or urgent, but it still irks me to see the same tasks there week after week.

In the past I've taken a day off work to run through my next actions list instead. This always feels a little icky to me; it means I'm not balancing things as well as I want to, and I always feel guilty about not working (which is absolutely unhealthy and something I need to work on). A better solution would be to work on non-work tasks every day instead of waiting for my list to reach breaking point.

Solution - revert to using a daily schedule, and make time during each day to work on things from my "next actions" list.

I'll be testing both of these solutions out for the next month or so. We'll see how it goes.

2020 marathon race report

In 2019 I ran my first half marathon. For 2020 I wanted to go even further, so I set myself the target of running a full marathon.

It didn't go quite as planned.

Race Information

Date March 15th, 2020
Distance 26.2 miles
Time 5:37:39


Goal Description Completed?
A Finish in under 5:00 hours No
B Finish in under 6:00 hours Yes
C Finish the race Yes


I stuck pretty close to Hal Higdon's Novice Marathon plan. I kept notes throughout my training, which I've tidied up below:

  • Early training weeks are hard because of lack of practice. Later weeks are even harder and tire me out.
  • Motivation really dipped halfway in, around the time I completed my first 13.1 mile training run.
  • Training is REALLY time consuming. Longer runs can hours to complete, and then there's added hours for recovery.
  • Foam roller helps a lot with recovery. As do compression socks and knee brace.
  • I wanted to eat a lot of food ALL the time.
  • I felt really out of shape, even though I was the fittest I've ever been.
  • Somebody tried to run me over on one of my long runs, and they followed me home in their car. That put me off running outside for a while and made me quite nervous.
  • Tuesday runs are the hardest to get motivated for. I still ache from the long run on Sunday, and 3 miles doesn't feel like worth bothering with. Once I got going they were fine.
  • Failed my first 15 mile run. I only hit 11 miles and struggled with the last hour. Walked a fair amount. I did swim the day before, so that might be why.
  • Cold weather running is brutal. Thermal undershirts help.
  • My run on 30/01/2020 was awful. I REALLY wanted to quit after 1/4 mile. I stopped and turned around before forcing myself to keep going. I felt a bit agoraphobic.
  • The 18 miler went okay, but got boring towards the end and the last few miles were very hard. It hurt my quads and took two days to recover from.
  • I got to run side-by-side with a train. That was neat.
  • Ran my 20 mile week pretty comfortably. First 5 mile run was nice and quick. 10 miler was pleasant enough. Last 5 miler hurt due to aches, but was doable.
  • Last 20 mile run was a complete bastard. Coming up the hill was agony, and my upper thigh hurt a lot. Took two to three days to recover properly. Rolling helped.
  • It was REALLY hard to motivate myself once tapering was in place. Retroratcheting goals on Beeminder helped.
  • 8 miler after 20 miler really hurt after about 4/5 miles.
  • Took the last 12 miler off due to IT band soreness. Didn't want to do take time off, but didn't want to risk further injury.


I stuck pretty close to my half-marathon prep:

  • No alcohol for at least 7 days before the race.
  • My night before meal was fresh spaghetti and meatballs.
  • I ate 40g (dry weight) of oatmeal 4 1/2 hours before my start time.
  • I drank around 8oz of sports drink (Skratch Labs) before starting.
  • Applied a healthy amount of astro glide to the appropriate areas.


The actual race was canceled due to COVID-19. The race was due to take place on March 15th, and on March 10th I received an email saying it was still going ahead. Two days later it was canceled. I spent the day deciding on whether or not I'd do it by myself or just wait until 2021.

In the end I decided to go for it.

The first half came in 2 seconds under my target time, but I knew as soon as I hit the mark that I wouldn't make the finish at the same pace. I shifted to "finishing slow is better than DNF" mode.

The last six miles were extremely painful, especially in my thighs. I walked for around a mile until the pain decreased.

It was difficult to stay hydrated. I brought 20oz of sports drink with me, but I had to ask for someone to deliver two bottles of water around mile 20. That might be the best water I've ever drank.

I found running alone to be particularly challenging. There's nobody to set pace with, and I was running laps which was boring. My headphone batteries died around 4:30 which really tanked my energy. I ended up running the last few miles on the street to break up the monotony.

Finishing alone was a bit of an anti-climax; I was waiting for my watch to say "26.2" so I could stop, rather than running under a banner to the sounds of cheers. Having done it both ways, I can say that having other people around makes a huge difference to how it feels.


Post-race felt a lot like a really bad hangover. My mouth was dry and no amount of water helped. My lips were chapped. Everything hurt. I sat in the car on the way home and confidently declared "I am never doing that ever, ever again".

My next marathon is March 21st, 2021.

Deliberate practice

I've been reading the late Aaron Swartz's "Raw Nerve" series over the past couple of days. The "Confront Reality" article covers what is needed to become an expert, and the following quote gave me a lot to think about:

Synthesizing hundreds of these studies, K. Anders Ericsson concluded that what distinguishes experts from non-experts is engaging in what he calls deliberate practice. Mere practice isn't enough – you can sit and make predictions all day without getting any better at it – it needs to be a kind of practice where you receive "immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results."

This sounds a lot like Stephen Covey's seventh habit, "sharpen the saw".

I'll admit, I haven't been as diligent about sharpening the saw as I would like. When I first started programming I would happily make little toys to experiment with whatever I was learning. They weren't supposed to be products or the next Big Thing, they were like sketches to be drawn and discarded.

All of that stopped once I started working as a professional developer. Suddenly I felt that everything I created had to be good. I couldn't just create a throw away software, I had to create useful tools or high quality games. Gone were the days when I'd be happy to get a little sprite jumping around the screen - now it had to be a top-quality platformer with multiple levels and ultra-tight gameplay.

I'm not sure why this happened, but it's something I'd like to fix. Earlier in the year I read Mastering Software Technique - it's a great book about running "coding studies" to practice and learn the programming skills. It covers the entire process: deciding what to study, structuring the study itself, and how large (or small) the studies should be.

I should probably read it again.

Triaging my someday/maybe list

After yesterday's post about my someday/maybe list, I decided to be a little more proactive about things. I dumped all of my current items into an org-mode file and assigned custom properties for estimated size, area of responsibility, and a future column for the action I want to take.

Using org-mode's column view, it looks a bit like this:

Column view of triage list

The columns are configured with the following settings, and I added properties for each column to make data entry quicker:

#+COLUMNS: %60ITEM(Details) %10AREA(Area) %8SIZE(Size) %8ACTION(Action)
#+PROPERTY: AREA_ALL Personal Work FreeSoftware
#+PROPERTY: ACTION_ALL Do Delegate Defer Delete
#+PROPERTY: SIZE_ALL hours days weeks months years

I wanted a rough idea of how large tasks are, so I didn't try to be too accurate with the size column; using hours, days, weeks, months, and years gives me enough detail to decide on actions to take. I also assigned an area of responsibility (e.g. work, free software, etc) so they can be tied to larger goals.

Finally, I went through each item on the list and asked myself a couple of questions:

  • Would I be okay if this thing never happened?
  • If it does happen, do I want to be directly involved, or am I okay with just putting the idea out there?
  • I if I am involved, would I be okay hiring someone to do some or most of the work?
  • Do I want to do it all by myself?

These questions are similar to GTD's 4 D's: do it, delegate it, defer it, or delete it. If I wasn't sure about any of them, I left the "action" column blank (aka deferring it).

A lot of the list is still deferred, but it was a helpful first step and it eased some of the discomfort I'm feeling. Going forward, I want to make triaging my someday/maybe list part of a monthly review. Weekly feels a little too often, although that might change as the list gets smaller.

Someday? Maybe not

The someday/maybe list is an integral part of Getting Things Done. It's where things go when you might want to do them at some point, but now is not the right time.

It's a really useful tool, but even with regular reviews it can get pretty darn large. My list is around 250 items, but that doesn't include things like books I want to read, games I want to play, random ideas I've had, etc. It's probably closer to 500-600.

All of these items range in size; there are things I could do in an hour, tasks that would take months - or even years - to complete, and everything in-between. It's a little overwhelming to look at it all in one go.

One thing that stood out is that I have a pretty decent handle on the someday part of my list, but I'm struggling with the maybe side.

There are a lot of things on the list that I'd really like to do. There are also things that I'd like to do, but that are outside of my current abilities. And there are also things that sound like a good idea but are probably not so great.

Even if each item only took a day, it would still take me nearly two years to get through everything. If each item took a month it's closer to 50 years. Ouch.

Right now I'm trying to accept that maybe not is a part of the someday/maybe process, and that most of these ideas will never come to fruition.