Open Loops, Distractions and Attentional Dysregulation

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The Importance of Closing Open Loops

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
Part of the Intentionality & Memory Series

photo credit: Matthieu Aubry via Flikr - (c) Creative Commons

photo credit: Matthieu Aubry via Flikr – ©Creative Commons

“open loop” is my term referring to a step to be accomplished before an activity or thought process can be “put away.”

Only once a task has been “put away” does the Prefrontal Cortex [PFC] voluntarily let it go.

Until then, it continues to “ping” the stored reminder of where we were in the process —
to keep it “active” in our working memory banks, even when we are not “actively”
thinking about it.

Completions are “closed loops” – whether we have completed an entire task or an identified portion – a “chunk” that we have set before ourselves – fulfilling our expectation that we will take the step or accomplish the task or activity, which “closes” the loop.

Only once an item is “completed,” is the information about it moved into a different part of the brain, where it becomes more “stable,” less vulnerable to distractions and less distracting for you.

  • At the same time the open loop stops “nagging at you,” each completion releases a hit of “feel good” chemicals as the task relinquishes the “space” it has been taking up in working memory storage.
  • A closed loop makes room for the next item along life’s path of to-dos, removes a distraction, and gives you a bit of “juice” to encourage you in the belief that you WILL, in fact, be able to stay on completion’s pathway.

If, for any reason, an item is “bumped” before it is completed, it remains a stressful “open loop,” adding to the items vying for cognitive bandwidth, and having the opposite effect, for similar, brain-based reasons.

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Recent incompletions continue to nag at us, even if we are not consciously aware of what it is, exactly, that we’re not doing.

That chronic distraction makes it more difficult to accomplish the task at hand.

  • Our level of stress goes up, waking up Mr. Amygdala, which pulls cognitive resources from the PFC, decreasing the number of items we can handle effectively — because that is what an activated Amygdala does, according to science’s current understanding.
  • That leaves us less able to complete the tasks before us
  • Which increases our level of stress — AND THE BEAT GOES ON!

Incompletions are “open loops” and create “open loops” — unless we can trick our brains into believing that we have “handled” that particular step, if only “for now.”

Before we take a look at how to close open loops without actually completing the tasks they represent, lets explore how the process seems to work.


Short Term Memory and Stress

The findings of an apparently unrelated study offers an explanation for some of the foundational elements behind the “pings” that keep open loops “present” below the level of conscious awareness. It can be found in a September 13, 2012 article by Chris Barncard at the University of Wisconsin, Madison:

“The neurons of the prefrontal cortex help store information for short periods.

Like a chalkboard, these neurons can be written with information, erased when that information is no longer needed, and rewritten with something new.

It’s how the neurons maintain access to that short-term information that leaves them vulnerable to [cognitive] stress,” — and, I might add, leaves you vulnerable to the ongoing emotional stress for every open loop that exists.

Barncard quotes David Devilbiss, a scientist and lead author on a study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, applying a new statistical modeling approach that shows that rat prefrontal neurons were firing and re-firing to keep recently stored information fresh.

“Even though these neurons communicate on a scale of every thousandth of a second, they know what they did one second to one-and-a-half seconds ago. 

But if the neuron doesn’t stimulate itself again within a little more than a second, it’s lost that information.”

So each neuron “pings” a reminder to keep from losing that information.

Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Phillip Martin

NOW let’s bring Mr. Amygdala back out of his cave
to explain the complication of too many open loops.

The amygdala, remember, is that part of the brain that reacts to fear and anxiety, activating your fight-flight-freeze programming in response to any threatening stimulus – in fractions of a millisecond.

That, in turn, shuts down the PFC (pre-frontal cortex), the higher order thinking/decision making part of the brain that you need to figure out problems and work through the steps to solution.

The amygdala has evolved to keep you alive, so it commandeers all available resources to prepare you to fight for your life or run for it. It can’t tell the difference between a sabre-tooth tiger attack and a troubling call from your mother-in-law when you’ve got your hands full trying to fix dinner for four “starving” children.

Overwhelm is overwhelm, and that sounds the alarm. The PFC’s slower response time is no match for the amygdala’s reaction. Your PFC may override your automatic response to head for the hills or arm yourself for battle, but it’s not likely to come up with appropriate responses to the challenges of this particular 21st century moment.

Once Mr. Amygdala has sounded the alarm, attempts to access your more reasonable, logical self to exert your will over the reactive, primitive parts of your brain aren’t likely to be very successful.

Will power is a function of the higher-order cognitive skills modulated by the PFC – which is taken off-line, remember, by activation of the more primitive circuits of the brain in the limbic system (Mr. Amydala’s turf).

  • Your will power fails when your “wisdom” is overpowered by your animal instincts
  • It won’t return at levels you can access with your customary manner of effectiveness until the negative emotions subside.

Your best defense is to make sure that, before Mr. Amygdala gets involved, you pay attention to the availability of some at-the-ready cognitive bandwidth that will allow you room to handle life’s little emergencies AFTER Mr. Amygdala gets involved.  That’s the point of making sure you continue to close open loops.

Closing Open Loops

Artwork courtesy of Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Artwork courtesy of Phillip Martin, artist/educator

Until it’s “put away,” an item remains an open loop — and at least one more invisible ball folks are likely to swear doesn’t really count — as you have no choice but to juggle it right along with all the others.

To review, “juggling invisible balls is my term for the conscious attempt to screen out persistent, irrelevant, or intrusive, off-task, background “noise.”

“Noise” refers to input from any modality (an area of information processing using our sensory apparatus);

“Juggling” is a metaphor to help us understand the mechanism by which we handle life’s many cognitive demands.

It is simply a myth that we “multi-task.” We time-slice — continually tossing and catching bits of each item we are attempting to handle.

Regular readers will recall that brains with EF struggles [Executive Functioning], as experienced by those with ADD and many of its comorbid siblings and look-alike cousins, do not “automatically” filter ambient stimuli in the manner that so-called neurotypical brains take for granted.

We debit cognitive bandwidth to be able to push aside background noises they may not be consciously aware of.

  • Their brains have a sort-of neuro-chemical white-noise machine that masks persistent stimuli that aren’t relevant to the task at hand.
  • For us, these items become “invisible balls” we must juggle along with all of the other pieces of the tasks at hand.

Real Time Jugglers

Let’s say, for example, you are cooking dinner for hungry kids.

The “When are we going to EAT?!” pressure is stressful all by itself, making it more difficult to step through all of the interwoven tasks that cooking even the simplest of dinners requires. Even a meal of hot dogs and canned baked beans opens a bunch of loops your brain must track.

Your brain must remain aware of the logistics of timing of each planned item, the location and preparation of the buns, the logistics required to gather the condiments the kids prefer, plates, glasses, forks, milk or juice, and who sits where at the table — not to mention everything necessary to open the can of beans and heat it up while you are heating the hot dogs, dealing with the children’s impatience, and so forth.

Since the kids insist on warm hot dog buns, you slipped them into the oven to heat them up while you’re handling everything else. Uh-oh, an out-of-sight open loop!

What’s the Big Deal about Hot Dogs and Beans?

EF struggles or not, in addition to the items that anyone else can see and hear, you are juggling quite a few balls that are “invisible” to anyone who is not responsible for dinner. There are a great many open loops you are in the process of closing.

Suddenly, your work cellphone rings. The oldest child grabs it off the table and says hello, even though the house rule is that nobody touches that phone but you. Grrrr!

“It’s Gram, she needs to ask you about Saturday.”

How many new loops just opened in your brain?

What’s Saturday? Why does she always call at dinner time?
WIll I have to deal with upset if I have Tommy tell her I’ll have to call her back?
If it was important enough to call my work phone, it must be important.
It wouldn’t be an issue if everybody simply followed the rules.
Wait, do I smell buns burning?

And you haven’t even added the conversation with Gram to the mix yet!

  • If YOU happen to be a Mom who has some practice with this particular juggling act, it may be only mildly frustrating, so only mildly stressful. You may forget about the buns until they are darker than your kids prefer, but you’ll handle it.
  • If YOU happen to be a step-dad who’s new at juggling dinner and kids, don’t particularly care for your mother-in-law to begin with, aren’t pleased with the fact that your wife already called with an emergency at work (so you’ll have to meet her in front of the Convention Center, trying to get dressed up while you handle kid-duty alone), need to pick up some teen-aged sitter you’ve never met, after you drop by the dry cleaners to pick up your dress shirt and tux, and have no idea how to handle the kids refusal to eat hotdogs on “burned” buns . . .  it’s MAJOR!

As I said in an earlier article about juggling invisible balls,

  • JUST because “one more object” is easily managed by everyone else in our universe, that’s no reason to assume that we will find it so easily handled.
  • And JUST because we could easily manage “one more object” in a different juggling environment, that doesn’t mean it will be possible in the current one.

Which brings us to another foundational concept explored in another article from the TaskMaster Series: the importance of taking your functional temperature throughout the day.

This becomes important for more than a few reasons, but here are the two most important:

  1. So that you can match tasks to the level of cognitive resources on board
  2. As a reminder to open as few loops as possible and close as many as you can,
    to be ABLE to play anywhere near the top of your game.
artwork courtesy of Phillip Martin

artwork courtesy of Phillip Martin

Your Functional Temperature

If you haven’t read Taking Your Functional Temperature,
and Juggling Invisible Balls from the TaskMaster series,
I STRONGLY suggest you do so, or I doubt the content in this article will be as valuable to you as it could be.  (Skim over the portions of the text repeated here, but don’t miss the additional content sprinkled through-out – it will help, I promise!)

In the TaskMaster Series, I introduced several analogies that help illuminate what’s going on “behind the scenes” to help explain WHY we struggle with focus and follow-through — and WHY we struggle in ways that make it difficult-to-impossible to get things done, no matter how “motivated” we are.

On an average day, you may well be able to handle a great many things that, on another day, you simply cannot.

  • It makes sense ONLY if you start becoming aware of – and counting – invisible balls, and minimize the number of open loops, so that you can better predict your functioning level BEFORE you attempt to take on more than you can manage.
  • Part of the value of a comprehensively trained, brain-based ADD Coach is helping you develop the habit of taking your functional temperature – and identifying and closing open loops – to help you take on the type and number of tasks that will keep you stimulated but not overwhelmed.  
  • If you are flying coachless – or working with a coach who doesn’t specialize in brain-based ADD coaching – make it a priority to click the links within this article and study the content, so that you can begin to change how you approach your life — so that your life begins to come under YOUR control.

The Impact of STRESS

Stress is one of those invisible balls we expect ourselves to be able to juggle, right along with all the other invisible balls in our environment — at the same time we dazzle our onlookers by tossing and catching all of the balls that they can see.

Our stress level is a factor of the accumulation of events to that point and how many “open loops” our ADDled brains have been handling for how long (due to prior interruptions, prior open loops, and prior stressors).

Distractions and Interruptions

Attempting to manage our lives in the presence of numerous and repeated distractions turns what might otherwise be a direct route home into an extremely bumpy ride over the river and through the woods. There are times when, metaphorically, we simply must be able to “turn down the sound” to be able to stay on task.

Have you ever noticed how many drivers actually turn down the sound the first time the car starts to lose traction on slippery roads?  The first thing to go is the radio, and everyone in the car gets v-e-r-y quiet.

Same principle!  When focused attention is required, there is a limit to how much our senses can handle without overload.

The danger of crashing your car is one thing everyone over five years old understands innately.  The danger of crashing your LIFE is not so readily apparent, but just as likely — especially for those struggling with Executive Functioning deficits to begin with.


We must not underestimate the impact of their cooperation on our level of cognitive functioning — to our ABILITY to work around the negative impact of distractions — which determines the reliability level of our accountability.

Go back and read that long sentence again.  It is a foundational concept.

Since we can rarely count on the cooperation of those around us, most of whom simply don’t understand what we’re dealing with, another way to “turn down the sound” is to reduce the number of open loops so that we’re juggling fewer balls.

In the NEXT article on this topic, we’ll identify some typical open loops while we begin to look at some techniques designed to close them, and to keep from opening new ones.

So stay tuned – upcoming articles will help you develop some practical ways to incorporate these principles into your very own life.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

19 Responses to Open Loops, Distractions and Attentional Dysregulation

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  16. glenhogard says:

    Another way to think about attention being a form of money that is important enough to come back to add, is that it’s as if those of us from “ADDer World” have a different exchange rate for our money. Our currency does not buy as much attention as those from that dare-I-say “linear” country? We hand over 100 ADDer dollars at the airport, and we may only get back 40 or 50 Linear dollars to spend. In addition, because this country (the stressful task) has increased variables for us but we leave a lot of our structure at home, and that creates a situation in our brain where our prefrontal cortex shuts down just when we need it most to deal with the new situation.

    As Dr. Parker suggests in his book “New Medication Rules”, using my analogy; most of the time we are “home” our brains work like everyone else. ADHD is not a 24/7 condition for most of us. (I hesitate to use words like “never” “all” or “always” in an ADHD context)

    But when we travel to the country of “Increased Variables and Decreased Structure,” our brain-based differences bring about those negative ADHD symptoms of trouble maintaining sustained focus, memory problems, activating our brains to start a task and all the rest.


    • Great analogy! LOVE it.

      RE: 24/7 – I fight it every second (along with DSPS N-24, which is its own de-stabilizer)

      Years ago, ADD and Addiction expert Wendy Richardson & I began calling each other “ET” (for evil twin) when we realized that we were the only two we knew with that 24/7 struggle! (since then I’ve met many others, more’s the pity).

      We ALL struggle when structure dips below a certain level, as you know. So we’re talking juggling limits again — which is how I developed all the systems & structure techniques I teach.

      I NEEDED them to create “home” (as you describe the place where you and cp find that ADD does not affect the ADDer) — or I’d have no life beyond chaos.

      Tough to get anyone with less serious ADD (or vanillas) to respect that (much less GET it), so I had to teach myself a LOT about boundaries to keep others from constantly destabilizing my systems. And BOY did I get push back (oddly & unfortunately, the most damaging from ADD pros and other ADDers who did not “listen from belief”) – thus “There ain’t no IS about ADD!”

      I wasted YEARS being “reasonable” (in their currency) to avoid being labeled “rigid” – which is how I came to many of my distinctions — and is the source of my increasing anger with those who opine, in their blissful but damning ignorance, that ADD does not exist – the wind behind my advocacy efforts.

      Please don’t tell me that’s a “good” thing – It’s simply GREAT lemonade from extremely bitter lemons. Yes, things could have been “worse” – but they “should” and COULD have been MUCH better if some other “mgh” had come before me.

      I would MUCH preferred to have had the life that might have been predicted from my level of intelligence and drive, which sources my stronger advocacy language as I slide into the third act of my life — pushing hard for a fix (and early dx) so that no one else has to struggle throughout life as I have.

      Thanks for your comment – very validating for ME personally, btw!


  17. Ann Miller says:

    Great article, Madelyn! Being a person on the hyperactive end of the ADD spectrum, I often don’t have a lot of the “usual” issues with focus and time management, but this subject has personally resonated since the first time I heard you speak about it. I now recognize that when my amygdala goes off in situations like above, it definitely sends me into FIGHT mode–I turn into a “screaming meme” as we call it in my house. It makes me suggest to my student clients that they try to be more forgiving towards parents when they get approached by this “monster” seemingly out of the blue. It helps so much when one understands what is going on inside of one’s brain and/or inside of someone elses’s.


    Ann Miller, BSN, MBA, ADD Coach
    Helping students with ADD/ADHD reach their peak academic success.


    • Great comment – Ann – and I’ll take it as a RAVE for the benefits of comprehensive, brain-based ADD Coach Training (which you have obviously integrated VERY well if you are able to articulate the aha!s).

      The SUPER thing about working with a comprehensively trained, brain-based ADD coach (like you) is that ONLY that kind of coach can apply the PRINCIPLES they’ve integrated to the very ADDer who “walks in the door.” in a way that (what I call) the “tips and tricks” coaches cannot do.

      As you know, in addition to finding the “crutch” that fits each ADDer, ADD itself is a moving target (so you need to use principles to develop an “adaptive crutch” – and a comprehensively trained ADD coach can shave DECADES off the process). The lack of appropriate understanding can look like it’s the ADDers “fault” – and the shame and blame gets internalized and only makes things worse.

      It breaks my heart! I’m glad to see you are drawn to working with students. Intervention at that end of life will pay enormous dividends for the REST of their lives. What a gift! If ALL parents understood that, ALL ADD students would have comprehensively trained, brain-based coaches.

      You GO girl – and anybody looking for a coach for a teen – follow her links! (College students – check out Glen’s comment above and follow HIS links).


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