One of the biggest challenges for many of us is being continually distracted. The struggle to focus and the cost can be immense.
Perpetual distraction doesn’t just impact your productivity and sense of getting anything meaningful done. If you are continually distracted, it can also negatively impact your emotional well-being and pretty much all essential aspects of cognitive life.
The first step to improving your focus is to get better at managing external distractions. How many times a day does your phone or laptop distract you with a notification? How many minutes do you go without having to refocus? Start by creating the conditions where sustained focus is at least possible.
Watch the video to learn how.
The next step, and the purpose of this article, is to have a system that keeps your mind clear of internal distractions. This is simple – all you need to do is regularly empty your mind of anything it’s holding on to. Purge all tasks, errand and admin. The best way to do this is with a weekly ‘brain sweep’.
It’s a ‘purge’ for anything that’s not already in your calendar, written down, or in a project/task management system: email Jim, chase Julia, book a call with Sue. Send your niece a birthday card, renew your travel insurance, pay the gas bill. Buy that book, fix your coat, back up your laptop. Sort out the drawer in the kitchen, research where to stay on holiday, invite your friends over for dinner…
Exercise: Brain Sweep
1. Get a pen and paper (or an app / electronic notepad if you prefer)
2. Write down all the unattended stuff, tasks, things on your mind or that you need to do
3. Consider both ‘work’ and ‘non-work’: empty it all
4. Do not try to sort, prioritise, or do any of it now
5. Clear your mind and free up your mental energy and attention
A list of prompts you might find useful:
• Personal: home, friends, family, learning, hobbies, admin, bank, insurance, holidays, errands, events, birthdays, books, films, leisure
• Professional: email replies, phone calls, meetings, things to follow up on, things you’re waiting for, stuff to chase, project next steps, projects to begin, business development, things to communicate.
How to clear your brainsweep.
Your brain is now better positioned to work on anything because it is clear, enabling you to focus better. Do this brain dump once a week. Don’t be tempted to do it every day, or it’ll turn into a daily to-do list, which it is not. It’s a regular clear out that helps prevent the accumulation of unattended and incomplete stuff.
If you found it stressful seeing how much there is to do, don’t worry – there are no more things than there were before you did the exercise, and your brain is now in a better state to do them.
There are four ways to empty or tick things off this list (this also applies to your other ‘inboxes’>
1. Delete / Delegate:
Before you try to do something quicker or better, ask whether you should do it at all. To more start by doing less.
2. 3-minute rule:
If it takes less than 3 minutes, fine, do it now — if it takes longer than 3 minutes, don’t. Doing everything as it comes in is the route to busyness and responsiveness, at the cost of effectiveness and self-directedness.
3. Calenderise it:
Anything that needs to be doing on, or by, a certain date, put in your calendar.
4. Defer everything else to project folders:
Lots of things won’t yet need to be calendar-ised. Where do you put them? This is where a lot of people fall down. Without a task or project management system, you will always end up carrying these things around in your head.
If you need to store all your deferred tasks and projects, look at apps like Wunderlist, Omnifocus, Reminders, Todoist, Things. They all provide a similar function but preferably choose one that syncs with your calendar. If you use Google Calendar, I recommend using CalenGoo for your calendar app and GoTasks for your tasks.
Whichever task management system you chose:
• Create folders that correspond to your projects
• Create a folder at the top of all the others, and label it ‘INBOX’. This is for your brain dump.
• Empty this inbox as described above
Your brain will now be clear and uncluttered.
You’ll find it easier to focus and to sleep.
You’ll also now find it easy staying on top of everything.