Distractions and Focus

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One of the biggest reasons for mistakes in my day-to-day life is mental distraction. My mind will be floating around, trying to remember several things at once, and just like that, I’ll make a mistake with regards to whatever it is that I was focusing on.

I’ll put something in the shopping cart that I didn’t need. I’ll be distracted from playing with my children and completely miss a moment that they’re quite proud of. I’ll lose my train of thought when writing an article.

Losing focus costs time and money. It damages relationships and reduces the quality of work that a person produces.

In short, losing focus is one of the biggest challenges we have to overcome as we seek financial, personal, and professional improvement.

Over the years, I’ve found that four interrelated techniques really help when it comes to maintaining focus, no matter what it is that I’m working on.

Brain Dumping
Brain dumping simply means writing down any stray thought that pops into your mind that you’re going to want to recall later. It can be anything from something you want to look up or a task you need to complete to an appointment you need to make or a friend you need to contact.

Whatever it is, when it pops into your mind, you want to get it out of there and into some sort of reliable system. If you don’t, it’s going to keep dancing around in your head, distracting you and taking away some of your focus.

There are countless ways to do this. I like using Evernote for this because it’s on both my desktop computer and my phone, so I can easily create a new note wherever I’m at. I just create a note, write down whatever it was that floated into my mind, and save that note.

Before Evernote, I used a pocket notebook and a pen for this very task, just jotting down a note on each page of the notebook.

When you first start doing this, it is really useful to spend a few hours doing a full brain dump. Just dump out all of the things you’re trying to store in your head and get them down on paper. You’ll be shocked when you realize how mentally clean you feel after doing this.

Of course, when you have these things down on paper, you have to do something with them, right?

Reviews
Twice a day (or so), I go through all of my unprocessed notes. I immediately handle all of the really short tasks that take less than a minute or two and then just toss those notes.

For the rest, I put them somewhere relevant. For example, I’ll put appointments and other dates into my calendar or I’ll add project ideas to my folder of potential project ideas.

The goal is to make sure everything that I dump out winds up in a logical place. I don’t want to lose any of that stuff. I want to know, in my mind, that all of the stuff I dump out has been sensibly handled and that I’ll easily find it when I need to.

For me, a big part of keeping this stuff handy is in the form of checklists.

Checklists
I maintain several different checklists. One of them is a daily checklist of stuff I need to do today. Others are checklists for the various projects I’m working on. I have another one that’s full of things that need to be done around the house, and I have a handful of them for “someday” things, like books I want to read or relatively unimportant tasks I’d like to take care of.

I use Trello for all of these lists. I used to use Remember the Milk, but I find that Trello deals with two dozen or so lists much better than RtM does, so I switched over.

Whenever I sit down for a work session, I let my “things to do today” list guide me. I just follow it. Whenever I go to the grocery store, I let my grocery list guide me. I just follow it.

In short, in almost any situation I’m in, I resort to looking at a checklist to figure out what to do next. That way, I’m not filling my head with a deliberation on what to do next. I’ve already done that when I assembled the list. Instead, I’m just trying to stay focused on doing whatever’s next on that list. This is a huge distraction eliminator.

Distraction Reduction
At the same time, when I need to get something done, I absolutely have to cut distractions out of the picture. Whenever I’m doing anything where I want to focus, I consciously turn off distractions before I do it.

That means I regularly turn off my cell phone or put it into a sleep mode. I close my email program. I shut my office door. I turn on ambient music which does a great job of masking background noises.

I just try to lose myself in whatever task I have at hand and the fewer distractions I have, the easier it is to do just that.

If something does pop into my head, I try to get it out of there immediately by jotting down a note… which takes us right back to the start of this article.

In short, it’s all about maximizing focus. I want to give every important thing in my life as much focus as I can and the only way to do that is to eliminate the big distractions and make sure they’re all dealt with in a way so that I can come back to the important ones later. That way, I don’t have to worry about much of anything when I’m focusing. I just stick to the task at hand. Doing that saves me time, saves me money, and strengthens my relationships.

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