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Fed Up with Your Wandering Mind?

Fed Up with Your Wandering Mind?
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Are you a victim of a wandering mind? That’s not always a bad thing; a lot of brilliant ideas only reach our heads when they’re up in the clouds. But in the workplace, where efficiency is high priority, a wandering mind is usually unacceptable. Having a wandering mind is an entirely normal problem. Researcher Jonathan Smallwood populated the term, one of the first to study lapses of external attention in participants. He, rather effectively by research standards, demonstrated how frequent the mind wanders with SART (sustained attention to response) tasks. However, just because a wandering mind is common doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be avoided if possible. With that in mind, here are five practical ways to make your wandering mind focus.

1. Keep a record of your wandering mind

Just like a to-do app will help you finish all your daily tasks, just like a grocery list will ensure that you don’t forget the milk, so a record of your attentiveness can help cure your wandering mind. This may seem a little tedious, but set a timer to go off every half-hour you’re at work. When it rings, mark how focused you were based on a scale of your choosing. After a few days of diligent note-taking you’ll have enough data to to know when your wandering mind acts up, putting you on the path to take care of the intrusions that are impacting your workday.

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2. Settle unresolved issues

The most obvious way to temper a wandering mind is to remove the things that are distracting you. A lot might eat at us while we’re working, distracting us from the task at hand. If that’s the case for you, I encourage you to figure out what you can do to eliminate or at least lessen those distractions. That’s not always possible, of course, but take extra steps to have a peace of mind that you did all you could. If you’re waiting for an email, for example, consider shooting off a follow-up so it’s not so much on your mind.

3. Do low-energy activities at peak productivity hours

At the times when your wandering time most acts up, do activities that require your full engagement. Mind-wandering occurs when vigilance is low, so when you’re prone to a wandering mind be vigilant. A lot of productivity experts will tell you to schedule your most labor-inductive tasks at peak productivity hours like the beginning and end of each day, but that isn’t necessarily the best option for someone with a wandering mind. Rather, do low brain power tasks at times when your wandering mind isn’t acting up so that you’ll stay focused enough to do them, and do high brain power tasks at times when you would have otherwise zoned out.

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4. Carefully place gaps in your schedule

Your records might inform you that you have trouble focusing at times when you have an upcoming meeting, or just before lunch hour. Or your records might suggest that your wandering mind acts up most when you have too much time to kill. Based on your findings, adapt your schedule accordingly so that you have just the right amount of time between scheduled events so you accomplish the most possible.

5. Experiment with different methods

There is a whole host of productivity techniques out there for you to try, many of which were designed to compensate for a wandering mind. Try some of them out, see what fits your needs and before you know it you could be a productivity guru.

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6. Make habits

You should still be keeping a record of your wandering mind even after you’ve discerned the causes of it. Treat your inattention like a science experiment. Hypothesize ways to inhibit your wandering mind. Then, one variable at a time, change the way you approach your workday. When something works, mark it down and turn it into a habit. Over time you’ll accrue more and more good practices. You may never be distraction-free; no one is. But with this step and the others above, you’ll have a lot more control over your wandering mind.

Featured photo credit: Rennett Stowe via flickr.com

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Matt OKeefe

Matt is a marketer and writer who shares about lifestyle and productivity tips on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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