I have been hearing so much recently about safe-guarding your limited time and attention. This usually makes you think about Slack and phone notifications and whatever other pings and dings are going on in your day-to-day. There are ways to address those, usually just turning notifications off. That’s not too hard, but what about when your brain keeps interrupting you?
Throughout the day, I constantly get ideas, think of TODO items, or ask questions about whatever I’m working on. These are interruptions just the same as instant messages, but there’s not freaking off switch or “away mode.” I’ve been working on ways to deal with each of them that I’d like to share.
Keep a list of distractions so you can stay focused on the current task.
If I get a cool idea for a project, it almost always happens while I’m doing something other than sitting around brainstorming project ideas. I don’t have time to start working on the idea immediately. Instead, I just keep an ideas journal. It’s nothing fancy, just enough to remind me later what the idea was. If I see it later and it still seems like a good idea, I can start working on it. More often than not, it turns out that it was just an enticing procrastination reason masquerading as a cool idea.
I have an endless TODO list, as I’m sure you do. When another item pops into my mind, whether by random or from some relation to what I’m doing, it is distracting. It’s easy to get stuck in TODO planning and prioritizing mode. There’s little reason behind the items, too. Within minutes this morning, while doing something unrelated to any of this, I recalled I needed to:
- Change a script to generate .md instead of .txt.
- Lookup how to change Vim cwd.
- Change one of my desktop background images.
- Change default gmail account.
- Schedule car maintenance.
- Turn off excessive alerts on phone.
- Write blog about [some secret awesome topic].
Now need is not the proper word. These are just a few of the things that I thought to myself I want to or should do. Each was something I may have started doing immediately, derailing what I was actually doing. The reason I didn’t, and the reason I can recall these so well, is I maintain a list.
As soon as that “I should …” crap comes into my mind, I resist the urge. Instead of ignoring it completely, like I’m in some meditative state, I take a second to record it. Then I can stay on track and not incur the stress of those TODO items boiling in my subconscious trying not to be forgotten.
These, like the ideas above, more often than not are less urgent than they seemed at the time. Again, they’re just distractions trying to give me justification to stop what I was doing. Once I’m done with my current task, I can review them and choose one to act on if I want.
One of my strengths is that I ask a lot of questions. I’m all about stupid questions, as they’re the fastest way to alleviate stupidity. Part of that is, I’m very curious. When I’m digging around in some framework or language - hell, even a puzzle or a weedeater - I often wonder, “What would happen if …” Then I figure it out and it leads to a deeper understanding of whatever I’m doing.
This can be challenging, though. If I follow my wandering mind, I’ll never actually make any progress. This is the most difficult for me to ignore, but it follows the same pattern as ideas and TODO items. Write it down, answer it later! These questions are often more “useless” distractions. They serve a long-term purpose, maybe, but usually not the immediate task.
I’ll still let myself follow the questions a bit, but if it starts to become something that doesn’t solve the immediate task, I write it down. Again, I’ll end up with something I can review afterward. At that point, I will have completed my task and I can answer the questions if I’m still interested. Often, once the difficult task is out of the equation, many of the questions reveal themselves to be pointless distractions.
When my mind wanders, I jot down the distraction and continue my original task. This way, I can stay focused, avoid losing information, and selectively choose what to spend my time and energy on.
It’s like saving money or losing weight. The concepts are simple, the execution takes effort and practice. If you’re looking for ways to stay focused, I hope this can help. Now go back to what you were supposed to be doing!