I love the dogs in the Pixar movie, Up! The dogs, deep in conversation, will suddenly have their attention caught by something out of the corner of their eye, to which they instantly refocus and yell, “Squirrel!” There are days I am just like them – completely on task and then something grabs my attention, ripping it away. When I look back at what I was doing, I am completely lost and not sure what I was just working on.
For many years, I have suspected I had mild ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder. I skitter from interest to interest, never sticking to one thing very long. Some days I can’t concentrate on anything at all. However, once engaged in a task, I can lose myself in it for hours. Obviously, it was not crippling enough to check into, but still I wondered if I should. I have a couple friends who had similar struggles who did get a diagnosis and the medicine helped them quite a bit. I continued to wonder and never quite got up the nerve to have it checked out until a couple of weeks ago.
After talking with the doctor, he came to the conclusion I do have a mild case of ADD, but he didn’t think it bad enough to consider medication. In his opinion, I had compensated just fine through my use of task lists. He felt the side effects would not be worth it. I had to agree. I still struggle focusing on most days, I know what to do about it.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. In fact, it is because of this frustration, I learned about David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). Several years ago, I ranted to a friend about not getting anything accomplished that week. He suggested the book. It took me awhile to get through it, but once I did and started applying the practices, things began to get easier for me. I found it easier to focus on a single task because I could block out all the other thoughts that come crowding onto the stage of my mind.
Here are five steps I use to keep things moving in the direction I want.
- Get everything out of my head and onto a list. I do a mind sweep, where I write lists of things I need to do as quickly as possible. I don’t think about prioritizing, categorizing or calendaring them. I just get them onto a piece of paper. Once I slow down, which doesn’t take very long, I go back and do all the other things to put them into the correct list. I do this several times a week. I find that when I make the effort to do a mind sweep, I can only do it for about 5 minutes before my mind vapor locks and I have to do something else. That’s okay. Several short sessions each week keep things pretty clear. If it is on a list, my mind doesn’t feel like it has to keep reminding me constantly.
- Spend a few minutes each day prioritizing the high priority items to accomplish. I have built a discipline of taking 10 minutes at the beginning of the day, quickly looking over the lists to see what is critical for the day. Undoubtedly, something new pops up while doing this and I add them to the list. I use Toodledo for my lists and employee the ‘star’ to emphasize these tasks.
- Put the few critical items on a special list, away from the hundreds of others. By having a critical task list for the day, I have less distraction and can focus on just what I need to do today. The smaller list also helps me feel less overwhelmed. Having that list of five to ten items helps with rewards, too. I give myself a treat once I power through this list.
- Every time you find yourself off task, pull out the critical list and refocus. There are times I find myself doing something totally unrelated to the critical tasks, like surfing the net. I can’t even figure out how I got off task. Going back to the list reminds me what I was supposed to be doing and I can quickly jump back on task.
- Strive to check off at least one item each day. There are still days I am too scattered to get the list done. It isn’t even my fault sometimes, as unplanned meetings and drive by requests take their toll. On those days, I tell myself I still have to get at least one item checked off the list before I leave the office or go to bed. I have found this commitment keeps a little momentum going. Last night was one of those nights. I ended up staying up too late, but once I got going on checking off one item, I kept going and checked off six. Then I slept peacefully with a good conscious.
Next time you feel scattered and struggle to get something, anything done, try making a short critical list. See if it helps you focus and get at least one thing done. Good luck!