Part III – Reconnecting Attention with Intention
In the previous parts, we have established our goal in recovering from a scattered mind state:
To reconnect attention with intention.
1. Recognize the Scattered State
The first step, recognition, while most obvious, is also the most difficult and overlooked.
When we catch ourselves following the next shiny thing on the Internet, and only thinking that what is important is whatever happens to be coming to mind, consider that the ability to focus is impaired.
We are in a reactionary mode. When we’ve designed a good environment to get a project done, then being reactionary in this sense sometimes works towards building a flow. But, it is very different when there are no boundaries. There is a truism that art does well with boundaries. I’d say that most everything does well with certain boundaries.
Regardless, when we are in a reactive mode and nothing seems to be going anywhere, we must be able to step back and say, “something’s off here.”
The second step is to stop. Just stop whatever it is you are doing for a moment. Clearly this takes something of a judgment call. If we are in the middle of something that cannot be stopped (driving, lifting weights, …) then we must complete the action in process. But then stop.
Giving the mind a moment to relax will help regain some perspective in what to do next.
This leads to the third step.
3. Define what you are doing and what you are not doing.
a. Define what you are doing.
Actively define what it is you are presently doing, not what you think you “should be doing.” Whatever it is that has your attention now may not be important in the grand scheme of things, but we are not focusing on only that. We are focusing on the strengthening attention itself. As such, we are not going to pull that attention to focus on something else. This would amount to yet another break in attention.
Instead, attempt to define your present action in the smallest reasonable terms. Be specific in defining what you are doing and clearly define an end. Ask, “when will whatever this thing is that I am doing now be done?”
For example, if you catch yourself watching a silly cat video on Youtube, think, “This task will be done when I am done with this video.” Don’t just say, “I’m relaxing”.
By giving whatever task you have caught yourself in clear boundaries, such as an end, you already begin to regain composure. By remaining with the present focus and keeping it small, you make it something easy to complete.
b. Define what you are not doing (at least for the moment).
A scattered state often entails many thoughts about what to do. Some small ideas of needing to call someone back, larger ideas of wanting to write a book, and the reminder of a pile of dishes all compete for attention.
In the process of defining what it is we are doing as noted in step 3 above, there are several other tasks that are considered out of present focus.
An inbox or some similar set up such as a notepad can function as a receptacle to “brain-dump”. Enter all thoughts that come to mind.
4. Return to Action.
You now have several options available:
a. Complete the task as you have defined it. As you continue the task and new extraneous ideas and distractions come to mind, continue using an inbox or notepad as tasks to be processed after the present task is complete. The use of an inbox will minimize the internally motivated “switch-tasking.”
b. Close the loops. Alternatively, realize that the task does not have to be presently done. While the temptation to set everything down and move on to something else is there, one still needs to do something with the task at hand to reach a sense of completion, or at least, get it off the mind. To do so, we need to close the loops.
In other words, save the file, put away the references, and close up the task. Do all the tasks necessary so that you can return to it at some time in the future. In the world of GTD, define next actions, place them in their contexts, file reference materials, add links to the materials in the notes field if you are using OmniFocus.
Even if it is a silly cat video, bookmark or capture the URL in a someday/maybe context, or somewhere that you feel you can eventually return.
c. Combine the above two. Redefine what you are doing so that it is a smaller task than originally defined and close the remaining loops. It is often difficult to know quite how large a task or project is until it is undertaken. In these cases, consider closing the left over loops so the rest can be picked up later.
Consider as you are completing a task:
- Is this task actually done?
- Will I ever need to return?
- If I cannot do it now, can I redefine a smaller task?
- If not, have I closed off all loops?
Ultimately, these questions add up to:
- will this task now be off of my mind?
- If not what do I need to do to get it there?
Before moving on to the next step, actively consider,
- Do I feel ready to take on the next task?
- If not, what is the next smallest thing I can do?
In the next post, we’ll look at warning signs for the future and an example.
I’ve found the “add to OmniFocus” bookmarklet valuable for “closing the loop” when I realize I’m on some shiny Web distraction.
Absolutely. The “add to OmniFocus” button sits on my browser toolbar.
Here’s a link to Nik’s blog where he’s made the applet.