The (Slightly Embarrassing) Tactic That Helps Me Focus

August 26, 2019

embarrassing thing that helps me focus

Maybe you can relate to this.

Often, it feels like I have a hundred little things on my mind. I need to write this email, write this post, get something at the store, make reservations for the weekend, mail in that bill, etc. What happens, if I’m not careful, is that all these little things prevent me from doing the big thing I should be doing.

The most obvious time this happens is before I go to sleep. Although I’ve been tired all day, occasionally a million little things will pop into my mind and an hour goes by and I’m still awake. Frustration, personified.

Same with work, too. I have something I should do, I really should. But my mind wants to think about anything but that big task – I think about this email or some outstanding issue or whatever. And it delays me from starting it.

Well, I finally figured out how to stop all that. It helps me sleep at night, stay calm throughout the day, and guards against my procrastination. And it requires the most basic technology there is: pen and paper.

Before I go to sleep or need to do something for work and notice my mind swirling, I get out a piece of lined paper and  write down my thoughts – literally, just let everything come out that’s on my mind. Sometimes, I write half a page. Other times, I’ll fill up three. It doesn't matter what I write about or how much I write, I just keep writing until I feel like I don’t have anything left to say.

And then it’s done, my mind is clear and I’m ready to focus. From there, I can sleep, write a post, read a book, whatever; and I do it in peace, with just that on my mind.

I admit, I’m slightly embarrassed having to do it – the writing looks like chicken scratch and I feel a bit like a crazy person writing out my thoughts. But, I’m going to keep doing it, because it works.

Experts who believe in this method

After some research, I realized what I was doing was hardly unique. Two LinkedIn Learning time management instructors, David Allen and Dave Crenshaw, both preach similar messages.

Allen, for example, said that the “brain is for having ideas, not for storing them.” Rather than carrying around all these little to-dos and concerns in your mind, he suggests writing them all out and then tackling them in a strategic manner.

Crenshaw said the exact same thing: keep your to-do lists in established “gathering points” like your calendar or a physical inbox. He said that “your mind is not an acceptable gathering point.”

The takeaway

I have this metaphor in my mind about the whole situation. I see my mind as an engine, which performs at its best when the oil inside of it is pure.

My distracting thoughts – I need to do laundry, don’t forget to set that meeting invite, I need to buy more soap – are impurities that get into the oil and slow down the engine. Sometimes, so many impurities get into the oil it clogs the engine, and I can’t do anything at all.

Writing out my thoughts on a piece of paper is like straining that oil to make it pure again. Afterwards, the engine runs smoothly, as I cruise down the highway of peaceful productivity.

Do I feel a little silly writing out my thoughts in a notebook? Yeah, a little bit. But it also makes me feel good, because I know it’ll mean my engine runs smoother.

Plus, it makes me feel better that Crenshaw and Allen agree.

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