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. 

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. Spend 5 minutes and write down ALL the unattended tasks, in or on your mind that you need to do

3. Consider both ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ categories (the list below may help)

4. Do not try to sort, prioritise, or do any of it

5. Keep going until you feel you’ve cleared your mind (probably a page or more)

Do this brain sweep 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.

How to clear your list

Your brain is now better positioned to work on anything because it is clear, enabling you to focus better.

To clear the list, there are four options or approaches for each item:

1. Do it now

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.

2. Delegate it

Give it to someone else to do. This will requite effective delegation: why the task is imporant, how to do it, by when must it be done.

3. Delete it

Are there things you can simply cross off? Sometimes, rather than trying to do things quicker or beteer, its best to not try to do them at all.

4. Calenderise it

Anything that needs to be doing on, or by, a certain date, put in your calendar. Your calendar should be a place you trust.

5. Defer it (to a task / project management solution)

Lots of things won’t yet need to be calendarised. 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 solutions such as Trello, Asana, Wunderlist, 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 ‘GoogleTasks’ for your tasks.

Whichever task management system you chose:

• Create a folder at the top of all the others, and label it ‘Brain Sweep’. This is for your weekly brain sweep.

• Create other folders that correspond to your projects, or other categories

• Empty and move things each week, as desribed above, and based on your weekly activities

Your brain will now be cuncluttered. You’ll find it easier to focus. You’ll find it easier to fall asleep. You’ll also have a system that ensures your brain is clear and on top of things every day.

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