I recently listened to a workshop recording by Alan Brown, a productivity coach who provides coping strategies (targeted toward persons with ADHD) to help people be more productive. He described methods to get “unstuck” in our work by focusing on common trouble spots - experiencing scattered thinking among them. His strategy for controlling scattered thinking was a revelation to me. Personally, I get distracted when working alone and on tasks that I don’t want to do. My mind wanders or I find alternative busywork rather than focus on the one task to completion. When this happens I feel like I have wasted my time on little things. I feel disappointed in myself. As Brown acknowledged, there are many stumbling blocks to getting the important stuff done (indeed many books have been written on the subject) but remaining focused is the worst for me and for many of my clients.
Here is Brown’s approach to reign in the brain each time it strays off course. He suggests labeling our thoughts (just like attaching labels to baskets) into three categories: 1) “this is what I am doing now”, 2) “this is important but not what I am doing now so I’ll put it on my calendar and go back to my now task”, or 3) “this is not what I’m doing now and it doesn’t need to be done”. We can train our minds to use this three label system to effectively manage distracting thoughts and bring us back to the focus of our time right now. Personally, I have written these three labels on index cards and posted them beside my computer. The labels feel more physical, more real, like the labels on baskets. They serve as my accountability - like a person standing beside me keeping me on task. The practice is called awareness. It is (loosely) what is known as cognitive behavioral therapy in psychology.
Here is how I use this system when I really must power thorough my to-dos. I create my to-do list the day before. I prioritize the top THREE items that I really must get done before the end of the day. These are deemed realistic and doable. I find a block of time during the day for each item. And then I get started. When my thoughts wander from the now task or I start killing time (in any number of ways) I try to become my own witness. I look at my cards. What is my now task? Am I still on the now task? Have I wandered onto something frivolous and need to nix it? Or have I remembered something important and need to write a reminder so that it will get done at an appropriate time later. Sometimes I truly need a little break to walk around or get a cup of tea but these interruptions are limited to ten minutes in two hours. Otherwise, it’s back to work.
Before you try this out be forewarned that some people fail to recognize when they are getting off course; they forget to be their own witness or don’t know how remain aware. If this is a challenge for you, set a timer to ring every ten minutes. When it rings ask yourself the on-task questions. You may think that a timer would be distracting in itself, but it is worth the interruption until you get the hang of it. Sometimes the sound of a radio or TV can keep you in the moment also. I encourage you to try this awareness strategy to see if it keeps you on task. Practice for just ten minutes at first and increase the duration with each session until you feel you have achieved mastery. You WILL become more productive if this plan is in place before starting on the now task. You will gain control over the old, unproductive scattered thoughts and feel a sense of accomplishment.