Sleep. I need sleep. My eyelids are staying open only with conscious strain. Tomorrow will be busy, and I know I need every minute of sleep I can get. I also know I hadn't been 21 in 15 years. All of that is known to me, but other-JR, my farmer avatar that exists solely as a series of ones and zeroes, could close a whole lot of open loops if I just stay awake a little while longer.
So I do the sensible thing and maneuver other-JR into the farmyard. He waters the crops (loop closed), pulls the weeds (loop closed), and chops some firewood (loop closed). Once that was all done, the big loop of harvesting the cabbage was opened up.
I found out about opening and closing loops from a business book. It's odd how a paperback in that genre fundamentally changed how I viewed the games I played, but such was the case with reading David Allen's, Getting Things Done.
It's a book full of all sorts of useful advice, but what really stuck with me was how having open loops clogs our brains. Basically an "open loop" is something that you have committed yourself to doing (whether it's fixing that squeaky door or compiling an SEO report), but which you have yet to do.
The worst thing about an open loop is that, until it's done or outsourced, your brain keeps that loop open. It's somewhere in that mass of grey matter, continually eating up a tiny bit of your brain's RAM every second that it remains undone. And the more open loops you have in your brain, the more your mind will tend to get stressed and race from "I should do that!" to "No, maybe I NEED do that!" to "Crap, how will I get any of this done?" Simply put, a brain full of open loops is a disorganized and untidy creature, constantly trying to grab some Round-Tuits.
But when you close an open loop? That's when your mind gives you a nice little shot of dopamine as a reward. After all, you have done something important, so you deserve a nice little shot of Vitamin Accomplishment.
Your brain, I should note, is lousy at matching the importance of a task with the appropriate reward for completing that task. Of course the satisfaction I get from mentally crossing off a task in the real world is a little different from the satisfaction I get from pushing B and harvesting cabbage, but if I'm honest it's not entirely unrelated either.
So I continue to push B again and again to get that feeling. At each press of the button, other-JR makes the most satisfying grunt, harvests the cabbage, and gets some money for it. A series of loops are opening and closing before my eyes. B. Grunt. Cabbage. Accomplishment! B. Grunt. Cabbage. Accomplishment! B. Grunt. Cabbage. Accomplishment! It's soothing, and once I reach my goal I put the controller down and instantly fall asleep.
I wake and see that I've slept in pretty late, all the way to 7:15 AM. My mind is briefly puzzled as I look to the other side of the bed: My wife is gone. Huh. I guess she was kind enough to let me get a little extra sleep this morning. How nice of her! Looks like I have time to take a morning shower before I face the day.
The hot water soothes me, and my mind begins making a list of what I hope to accomplish today. There are chores, errands, work and, of course, taking the kids to school.
It's a lot, but maybe, if I'm lucky, I can fit in a run. I hope I can do six miles instead of my standard five. Game-time is almost exclusively an in-bed activity these days, but maybe I could fit some of that in too.
I know it will be a busy day, but all the minutia of modern life simply needs to get done "sometime," and I know I need to take action and do the steps needed for me to earn the right to cross off those tasks from my to-do list and earn my dopamine.
I walk into the dining room and see my darling five year old daughter Casey, still in her PJs. Huh. And my wife, still in her nightgown. Double huh. Both of them are wearing haggard expressions.
This isn't going to be good news.
"Casey has been throwing up all night," my wife begins. She goes into some detail of the night's unpleasant events before he has to leave for her work, leaving me to take care of a sick kid for the day.
I'll need to trim some of my daily goals, but even with one sick kid, I could still get a fair amount ...
"Daddy, I have diarrhea!"
My three year old son, Trip, has come down the stairs. Somehow, he is cheerful.
It's possible, barely, to multi-task with one of my kids home sick. With both of them? Getting anything above the level of basic needs is just not a realistic objective. My previous outline of the upcoming day collapses upon itself.
Without conscious thought, my running to-do list rewrites itself. The oil change moves to another day (gosh my car is old, I hope I'm not pushing it too hard). That article I was wanting to write is pushed into hazy future (will I ever find the time to write it?). Many little things on my mental list will unavoidably left unchecked until the kids are well.
I quickly ask myself what I absolutely have to get done today. After some brief searching through my mental files, the one chore that I just can't see myself putting off is getting a time-sensitive tax document that simply MUST be mailed to a business partner today, no matter what. It is one of those cannot-wait-must-do-it-now type of thing. So my new to-do list for the day is:
- Get kids in car.
- Mail package.
- Come home and take care of sick kids for the rest of the day.
That decided, I get to work on closing the first loop.
Wait: Pause loop closure.
The kids are shoeless and in their PJ's. Horror stories I've heard of parents leaving their kids in their car for "just a few minutes" and having Child Services called on them flash through my mind
"OK, kids we have to get dressed now."
Casey doesn't really resist. She's five and fairly used to dressing herself, but Trip, at three, is just not quite there yet. He fusses, runs away once (or twice), gets coaxed into a pair of pants, declares the pants to be too scratchy, pulls a dozen pants out of his dresser and throws them on the floor, finds a pair of "soft" pants, tries them on, and pronounces them "good."
Ok, that wasn't so bad. Loop closure resumed.
"No shoes today!"
Pause loop closure.
"Trip," I say in as soothing voice as I can, "We wear shoes when we go outside. Daddy is wearing shoes; Casey is wearing shoes, let's put on your shoes now."
"No shoes today!"
Every parent knows they have to pick their battles, but if I let him not wear shoes today it would have just meant a bigger battle every following time, so I force the issue with a typical parental mix of soothing, reinforcement, authority and anything else I can think of until the damned things are finally on his feet. Loop closure resumed.
"I have to go potty!"
Pause loop closure.
He runs into the bathroom and starts taking off the shoes and half of the clothes I had just got him into. I roll my eyes, but do nothing to stop it. He's got diarrhea; running and using the potty is something I want to encourage. He closes the bathroom door on me.
"I need privacy!"
All I have to do then is stand outside of a bathroom, waiting to unpause this loop closure. It's just a little bit of waiting.
"Trip, are you still on the potty?"
"I'm still pooping!"
OK. Don't rush him.
Finally, he finishes. I just have to get him to quickly wash his hands, and then I can close that first loop.
"I don't want to wash!"
Loop closure still paused.
Trip tries to avoid washing his hands, but that's a rule I won't compromise on so it's another run of soothing, reinforcement, and authority until his hands are clean.
Almost there. The first big loop of the day is almost closed.
Casey is wobbling back and forth on a step-stool, which itself is placed rather precariously on the edge of staircase in our garage. That splash of danger gives her that extra height needed to work the garage door – a worthwhile trade in her mind.
"Casey," I say calmly, not wanting to startle her, "Please come down from there."
"I just need to get the garage open."
"Casey, Daddy said come down."
She opens the garage. A new loop opens in my mind: "Teach Casey to Be More Careful." I address it instantly with a talk about safety, but as is often the case with parenthood, that loop is so nebulous and is such a childhood-long task that it's never really closed.
But both kids are dressed and heading into the garage. The first big loop of the day is almost closed and ... and I spot a pair of shin guards in place I would never, ever, think of looking. A vision of me in five days scourging around desperately trying to find them before soccer practices flashes through my mind.
Pause loop closure.
I grab the shin guards, put them in the proper spot, and resumed herding kids. In the garage! Ready to get into the car! The loop is so close to being closed ...
"Toothpaste!" Trip yells at the top of his lungs.
Pause loop closure.
Toothpaste? Toothpaste!? Processing. Processing. We did lose some toothpaste a while back, didn't we? Is it here? I look where his hand was pointing – nothing but some bicycle supplies.
"I don't see any toothpaste, Trip."
Trip is adamant, though. I looked and I looked. Nothing even resembles toothpaste, unless ... . I pick up a tube of chamois cream. "This isn't toothpaste, little guy. That's cream for when Daddy and Mommy go cycling."
Both kids get into the car without further prompting. The first big loop of the day is closed. I breathe a sign of relief.
The easiest part of my day is over.
Getting the kids into the car might not sound like much, and in truth it wasn't. It was just a fairly ordinary experience of trying to close loops with two very young kids. But it was frustrating for me in a way that dealing with many of life's other stresses isn't. Looking back on my careers, I tended to like tasks at jobs where I'm uninterrupted – responsibilities where I could really concentrate on getting measurable, achievable goals done. And, unsurprisingly, I like my video games the same way.
But parenthood isn't like that and never will be like that. Not even close. If this were a Disney movie I would now learn a valuable lesson about how important being a dad is. But I already know that lesson. Like, a lot.
My kids come first for me and always have, but as a metaphor: The whole time I was trying to get them into the car my finger was hovering over the button. It was ready to press B. It desperately wanted to click and close that loop, but my finger had to remained paused and quivering with anticipation. I had to be redirected and refocused, not once, but many many times. And my personality, my basic nature, just doesn't like pausing in the midst of a loop closure.
I accept it as part of life, of course. Pausing loops will happen many times in the future: in work, in daily tasks, and certainly in parenthood. As such, it's something that I try to do calmly and coolly for the simple reason that life isn't a video game. I get that, bone-deep in my mind and soul.
So I read books on parenthood. I try to respond to my kids' interruptions as the age-appropriate responses they are. I try to go with the flow and accept the things I cannot change. But at the end of that sick day, after many more pauses in many more loop closures, when sleep once more beckoned with the call of a siren, I ended up picking a f*ck-ton of cabbages.