How to Get Clarity When Your Mind is Scattered or Distracted

When I have a week that is concentrated on a single project I often feel as though I loose focus. My mind can forget other projects or important tasks that were not contained within the context of the project I was working on.

If I don’t catch myself, there is the opportunity for things to fall through the cracks. I forget to respond to important emails, to close the loop on an important task, or push the ball forward on an important project.

Here’s a practice I use to recalibrate myself:

Organize all the paper with ideas or tasks in a single stack. Get a blank legal pad. When my mind seems scattered a blank piece of paper brings clarity. It’s important to get some distance from your phone or computer during this process – even if it’s just for five minutes. Write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t filter ideas or tasks. Don’t worry if you already have them written down. “Brain dump” everything onto paper. For me, it’s important that I write everything down and then move all of the items onto the computer. Open up Todoist, or favorite cloud based task management system. Review new written notes in addition to older notes from the week. Convert all notes into actionable tasks, then throw out all the paper notes. Important: ensure that all notes are translated into action items. If you leave ‘just a couple’ notes or abstract thoughts on paper it will clutter your mind and you’ll feel weighted down.

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Why I Break Up Task Lists

I’ve been using Todoist for a couple months now. It’s a great implementation of the Getting Things Done system. I highly recommend both.

However, using a robust task manager doesn’t eliminate the trappings of a yellow legal pad: pages of tasks and ideas without context or prioritization.

The lists can still get out of control. As a type-A personality, I love creating tasks and crossing them off a list: the temptation to constantly grow my task list doesn’t go away with a robust task management system. It only gets worse.

Less Than Ten

You can only do so much in a day. I’m optimistic. I enjoy looking at the day and imagining all that I can accomplish.

But, I can only do 10 tasks a day. I’ve tracked, tested, and analyzed this. My ten things might be composed of a couple large tasks and a couple quick phone calls, but it doesn’t matter. On average, my limit is ten tasks a day.

And although it might be nice to think I can do more, 90% of the time, it’s not possible.

If I were to guess, you probably work the same way.

Keep it Short, Get to Zero.

Don’t be unrealistic with your output. It’s important that you keep your list short and realistic. Be sure you can actually cross off every single thing you put on your list. If you don’t, you’ll feel like you’ll never win. The feeling of always being behind and being “too busy” will haunt you.

Getting to zero will give you a victory. Wins create momentum.

Keep your list short. Keep it specific. Make the items actionable, tactical, and break them up into smaller tasks if they can’t all be done in one sitting.

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Other’s Urgent is Not Your Own

I’m a people-pleaser. I love helping people, having a conversation, giving away my knowledge, etc.

Over the last year it’s been important for me to learn to say no and not feel guilty.

It’s easy for me to let another’s urgent become my own. Whether it’s a friend, a family member, a client, or someone within your organization.

Defending your “domino task” – the one task that will move the needle and make the biggest impact – is incredibly important. It’s also really hard. Completely ignoring urgent requests of those around you isn’t possible, but helping the task along with a minimal effort is. The question I’ve been trying to ask myself is “How I can keep this moving with doing the minimal amount of work to stay concentrated on what is most important?” or “How can I outsource this task completely?”

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