Do you ever have those days when you just don’t know where to start? Days you find yourself staring at your computer screen, but can’t remember why? Today, I’m having one of those days. This seems to happen on the very days I have the most to get done. As I looked into it, I found that it’s a legitimate phenomenon. And while I would like to simply blame it on Murphy’s Law, the answer is not so simple. It’s mental and visual clutter distracting me.
I grew up in a large, loud family. As such, I’ve often prided myself on my ability to stay focused no matter what is going on around me. Math homework–while my sisters argued about clothing–no problem. Freshly baked cookies–while my sons wrestle on the kitchen floor–easy. All of this training prepared me for the chaos of photo shoots and creative deadlines, so I couldn’t understand why some days the distractions were actually distracting.
In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal says “when your mind is preoccupied, your impulses–not your long-term goals–will guide your choices.” So depending on my stress level, the distractions are more distracting. When I’m preoccupied that my teenager is making poor life choices, my impulses begin to win the war against self-control. I’m up from my desk to get chocolate from a co-worker or join in on a conversation I hear in the hall. It’s ironic, my son’s lack of self-control is stressing me out and causing me to lose self-control. So how do you prevent these days and what do you do when they happen? In this post, the focus is prevention, next post, I’ll provide tips on pulling yourself together after becoming distracted.
First, you need to take a moment and accept that there are going to be bad days. There is going to be some stress, like raising teenagers, that you just have to get through. In some fields, like firefighting or medicine, riding out the bad days is not an option, you have to get it together. The rest of us have hopefully managed our work schedule up to this point that once in a while we can be a little less awesome than usual.
To prevent or lessen the number of bad days, it’s important to be organized. So many decisions we make on a daily basis are automatic, but if you are unorganized, you don’t have that luxury. I’m less focused when traveling to new cities for business. I have to stop and think about the little things, like where I’m going to get breakfast and how I’m going to get there, decisions that when I’m at home are automatic. Planning your day in a strange city, organizing your luggage and business bag are all ways to keep your mind on auto-pilot. Being organized is not just knowing where things are, it’s the visual clutter as well. The leaning tower of letter trays on your desk are supposed to keep you organized, but instead of providing a visual cue of what is next, the tower has grown so tall it is overwhelming.
If this is not a random bad day and you are organized, the next step is to evaluate your daily schedule. In general, are you making time for sleep, food and exercise? In Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal also explains the physical component of distractions, how heart rate variability is critical to concentration. Sleep, exercise and a good diet all improve heart rate variability (prayer time and quality time with friends and family also help). A hungry mind is a distracted mind, and without a double-blind experiment I think we can all agree that a hangry person is not the best decision maker. Taking control of your schedule will keep you in control of your mind. Review your week Monday morning so you can cancel or reschedule appointments on days that are getting too full. Spend a half hour every morning prioritizing and planning your day. If your days are so hectic you frequently skip meals, there is a problem.
The next preventative step is to eliminate distractions. I’m sure you’ve heard many of these before. Assign a unique ring for emergency numbers, mute the rest. Silence your email and stop pop-ups, instead check it hourly or just a few times a day if you can get away with it. Send out fewer emails. Yes, you heard me correctly. If you send out a lot of email, you will likely receive a lot of email. For people that I work with daily, I keep an email draft going and add to it as things come to mind, rather than sending off an email with each and every question that pops up. If games or social media have you distracted, limit them to your phone or vice versa.
Finally, streamline processes. Yes, this seems like a fancier way of saying ‘be organized’, but to me it really is a little different. Think about those things you do every single day and how you can eliminate steps. I recently organized my computer, cleaned up the desktop, deleted old files and set up shortcuts to frequently used files. It took about an hour, but has made a huge difference. Simple things like saving documents or pulling up files for a meeting are effortless. I’m not sure I saved hours in a week, but I know I saved brain power and frankly, these days I need all the brain power I can get.
- Lower expectations for yourself during stressful times
- Organize your primary workspace, at home, in the office or on-the-go
- Monday morning review your schedule for the week and make adjustments
- Spend a half hour every morning prioritizing and planning your day
- Silence notifications on your phone and computer
- Get control of email conversations, avoid replying all or sending out too many emails
- Set up email rules so non-urgent emails go to a “clutter” or “read later” folder
- Organize your computer desktop, shortcuts and quick actions keys
- Streamline daily tasks
- Create a morning routine that starts your day off right