Being productive when your mind is a veritable playground

If I was to (oh, look at the butterfly) audit the time I actually get down to writing (cool … shiny object!) I’d be amazed I get anything done (the bathroom really needs cleaning). Such an audit (squirrel!) would indicate (need more coffee) that I truly am a hot mess (how are those Angels doing?).

To say I’m easily distracted is a generous description. Although I’ve never been formally diagnosed with ADHD, you can bet I’d blow the scale up if tested. Add to that a mind that never truly shuts up until I’m near exhaustion, life at the terminal gets interesting.

To make it through a productive cycle, I need tools. Major tools, industrial-strength tools.

I read an article by Linda Formichelli, who manages to get a lot of writing done with a mind that, like mine, dashes down far too many rabbit holes for its own good. She’s got distractions aplenty, between her kid and her own mind. Shoot, by comparison I have it easy — no kids — but my mind is a veritable playground.

So how does she do it?

Choose your system. Like Linda, discovering David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) was a huge step forward, and we both use a variation of this. Allen advocates writing everything down to get it off your mind, then figuring the next action to get things going. Use a capture/organize system you trust, and designate an area to keep notes. For me the Hipster PDA is great for jotting notes on the fly and untangling fuzzy thoughts. Remember The Milk is first-rate for organizing the mess of loose thoughts, and Evernote is my favorite online filing cabinet. Both these online tools are easily accessible from my smart phone.

Eliminate distractions: What distractions? Although it’s practically impossible to quiet down an excessively busy mind, I can shut down the Internet while I’m writing. Even better, I don’t have a home connection, and when I need to go online I can move to my “other” office in the library. I do have music playing when I write, but it does more to blot out external stimuli than creating a distraction on its own. I do draw the line on my favorite all-news radio station, though.

Ditch the schedule: To me this seems counterproductive, but it makes some sense. I seldom keep to my written schedule anyway and end up feeling bad about that. Formichelli suggests a go-with-the-flow mindset here. Anything that moves your career/project forward is a good use of time, and you can apply a more jazz-like play-it-as-it-lays non-structure. I still think that without a real schedule nothing will get done, despite evidence to the contrary.

Dude, is that a squirrel?

All good so far. Except for ditching the schedule I have no quibble with her ideas. But I must add some of my own tools here:

The Pomodoro Technique: This is a fancy way of saying … set a timer! I do my best work in short terrifying locked-in bursts, take a break, then hit another one. As a musician I’m accustomed to playing 45-minute sets with 15-minute breaks, but for writing I’ll go with 25-minutes of pure kick-butt production. When the kitchen timer goes off I’ll stop — even if I’m in mid-word — and take five. Francesco Cirillo, who popularized the Pomodoro Technique, uses a novelty timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro=tomato). You can learn more about the technique here.

Standing up to work: I love my standing desk. I usually do my best thinking while on my feet or while exercising, and standing up really does help me focus. With music playing I may be swinging from the waist down, writing madly from the waist up. Kind of a scary sight, but I’m not in it for the visual effect. For this I took a wooden wine crate, nailed a top to it to accommodate computer and mouse, and placed it on my desk for a standing-up platform.

Forget yesterday’s failures: I read that the thing that sets relief pitcher Mariano Rivera apart from other mortal closers is a good healthy dose of amnesia. He once said he’s going to stink out the joint sometimes; might as well forget it and fight another day. I’m still learning my way around this one, and I’m real good at dredging up yesterday’s failures and attempting to make up lost ground. But here’s what it means: If I fail to write, say, my 1,500 words today, I should forget about it and do 1,500 tomorrow. Just do my thing and not try to play catch-up — notice I said 1,500 tomorrow, not 3,000. In his 40s, even with his still-nasty cut fastball, Rivera’s mindset is his best weapon these days. He still sticks it to the Angels every time he faces them, so I still hate his guts. But I’m not above learning from him.

That’s a start, anyway. Do you have any special focusing techniques you wish to share? Use the comments section below.


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