How to Tame Your Distractible Mind

Do you know how to focus when distractions are constantly competing for your attention? It starts by simply picking up a pencil. Here's how!

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #495

Distractions are dastardly. Europa, the secret ruler of the Eastern Bloc, decided it was time for her yearly strategic planning session. After all, she’s been growing her empire since the 1980s, and these things require maintenance. She sits down, takes out her maps, positions the meeples she uses to represent world leaders on the map, and hunkers down to plan the next step of her world domination. Four hours later ...

She’s responded to a dozen emails, participated in nine Facebook discussions, browsed three websites of kittens doing the most outrageous things, and read two chapters of Pirates versus Ninjas: The Shocking Truth They Never Told You. Horrifyingly, she even knocked over some of her meeples and didn’t notice. No matter how powerful you might be, distraction is even more powerful.

How to focus when your tools are made to distract

Distraction is a chronic problem these days. Distractions are like interruptions, but they come from inside us, so they’re much more insidious. When a minion comes to your cubicle door and interrupts you, you can turn around, activate the sonic transducer, and your handy dandy audio-vibratory-physio-molecular transport device will send your minion to Antarctica where they won’t bother you anymore.

When a distraction comes from inside us, however, there’s no escape. Even our productivity tools are no help. Our technology was once designed by people who were trying to help us work better. Then they discovered that addicting and distracting us was a much better way to make money. So now our tools themselves are designed to distract.

These days, our tools themselves are designed to distract.

But there’s one tool that can’t distract: a pencil and paper. We’ll use this to tame our other distractions.

A distraction to-do list will help you focus

Grab a piece of paper and write the important thing you want to stay focused on in big letters at the top. Underneath the title, in smaller letters, write Distraction To-Do List. This piece of paper will become your mind’s best friend. When you need to reorient, glance down and the paper will tell you what you should be doing (but probably aren’t). 

This piece of paper will become your mind’s best friend.

Europa grabs her paper and titles it, “Create Strategic Plan To Remain Ruler of Everything.” Then she opens her laptop to fire up some mind-mapping software that she can use for brainstorming.

As the software opens, it informs her there’s a critical update that needs to be installed. She clicks “OK,” and while it’s downloading and installing, she idly clicks over to her web browser and opens Zooborns.com where the most adorable little baby penguin is being featured. This reminds her that she needs to get her son Thomas a tuxedo for his junior prom. Just as she’s about to head over to a tuxedo website, she glances down and sees “CREATE STRATEGIC PLAN.” She’s off course, but ... but … but Thomas actually needs a tuxedo for the prom. What to do?

Notice and triage your distraction

The hardest part of dealing with distractions is realizing you’ve just been distracted. There’s no perfect way to do this. I just keep the sheet with my focus area clearly in view, and when I glance at it, it shocks me into realizing whether or not I’m off course. When you realize you’re off course, the distraction list comes into play. When a distraction beckons, triage it. Decide if this is a real distraction that’s worthy of time and attention, or whether it’s a fake distraction that really doesn’t matter right now.

Schedule distraction time blocks in your calendar.

There are many reasons something might not matter. It could be genuinely useless. Europa has no actual need to browse Zooborns at the moment. She was intending that solely as an idle exercise while waiting for her mind-mapping software to download.

Other things might be important. If you have a cybernetic teenager who’s due for his first prom even as his body introduces him to hormones for the first time, you want to make sure his tuxedo is ordered on time.

So jot your distraction down on your Distraction To-Do list, with a star next to the ones that are truly important. “Browse Zooborns.com” (no star). “Order Thomas’s tuxedo” (star). Then take a deep breath, and get back to what you were doing. If you were waiting for something, like a software update to load, now’s a perfect time to close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and do a mindfulness exercise. Just don’t follow the distraction.

Establish a distraction time block 

It can help to schedule a distraction time block in your calendar, just as you might do with interruptions. Four p.m. works nicely. Then when four o’clock rolls around, you can pull out your distraction to-do list and review the starred items.

Free from the seductive impulses of the moment, you can consider your distractions dispassionately and take action only on the ones that really are important. 

Europa tried the distraction to-do list with great success. Her focused strategic planning complete, she was all set to call Cambridge Analytica to for some advice on the 2020 elections. And when she combed through her distraction list, she discarded the emails, eliminated the Facebook discussions, postponed Pirates versus Ninjas, and decided that ten minutes on a single Zooborn website was enough to restore her sanity. And of course, being a child of the '80s, she ordered Thomas his junior prom tuxedo in sky blue with pink trim. I suspect she’s going to discover that fashions have changed.

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.