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The Distractions List: A Simple Technique for Better Focus

Photo by Green Chameleon

Often our own mind can be the biggest source of distractions when we sit down to work:

  • We suddenly remember the bananas we forgot to pick up at the grocery store.
  • We begin worrying about the presentation we have to give next week.
  • A sense of dread creeps over us when we realize how much work we still have to get done by the end of the day.

The Distractions List is a simple but powerful technique for dealing with internal distractions like these. By immediately writing down our distracting thoughts, we signal to our minds that those distractions are acknowledged and will be taken care of if necessary.

I first came across this idea, by the way, in Chris Bailey’s book Hyperfocus.

How To Do It

Here’s how to implement the Distractions List:

  • Whenever you sit down to do some meaningful work, keep a small notebook or pad of paper and pencil next to you.
  • When you notice yourself distracted by a particular thought, feeling, or any other internal event, quickly jot it down and then re-focus your attention onto your work.
  • When you’ve finished your work, briefly review your Distractions List: Take note of anything important on the list and make a brief plan for taking care of it (e.g.: Set a reminder in your phone to pick up bananas at 5:05 pm).

That’s it!

Why It Works

While the experience of worry and the anxiety it produces is uncomfortable, it often serves the purpose of increasing our memory. In other words, when our mind is afraid that we’ll forget about important things, it often throws those things at us (in the form of worry) as a kind of primitive memory aid.

(Side Note: In his excellent book, Getting Things Done, David Allen talks a lot about this memory function of worry and how to eliminate it with well-designed organizational systems.)

Imagine driving in the car and seeing a phone number you want to remember on a billboard. Ideally, you’d write the number down as a way to remember it. But you’re driving, so you have to resort to a more primitive technique — repeating the number over and over again.

Often this is what our mind is doing when it throws “distracting” things at us while we’re working. It’s afraid that we’ll forget something important, so it repeats it over and over again.

By keeping a Distractions List, you’re effectively reassuring your mind that you have a reliable system for remembering these important things.

And if you get in the habit of keeping a Distractions List, eventually your mind will really start to trust that you will remember important things. Consequently, it will feel less of a need to throw these distracting worries at you.

Good Places to Use a Distractions List

The Distractions List is useful whenever you’re doing any kind of sustained, meaningful work. I find it most useful in these three areas:

  • Reading. Most mornings I sit down at my desk and try to read for at least half an hour. Because I only have a limited amount of time, I try to really make sure I don’t end up distracted. When I sit down to read, I put my phone in a drawer and take out a little notepad and pencil and put it next to me on the desk and use it as a Distractions List.
  • Writing. I try to write every day. And writing — at least for me — can be a mentally and emotionally draining process. As a result, I often find myself stuck in the middle of a writing session, unsure of where to go or how to connect two ideas. In response, my mind often throws distracting thoughts at me. This is the perfect scenario for a Distractions List.
  • Email. As much as possible, I try to batch process my email once or twice a day. Sometimes this goes quickly and easily, but other times it takes a lot longer than I imagined. When this happens, my mind tends to rev up its distraction throwing, so having a Distractions List close by is helpful.

Summary & Key points

  • Often our biggest source of distraction when we work are the thoughts and feelings produced by our own mind.
  • Our minds “throw” distractions at us—in large part—because they don’t want us to forget important things.
  • We can train our minds to throw fewer distracting thoughts at us by always writing down those distracting thoughts as we work—that is, by keeping a distractions list.
  • With practice, this habit leads to increased focus and concentration because our brain learns to trust that we have a reliable system for remembering and taking care of important things.

Originally published at nickwignall.com on November 9, 2018.

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