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Keeping Your Mind Free of Clutter

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All of us need to find ways to get more done. Part of this is getting the extra stuff out of our head so we can knuckle down and make progress. But how does one do this?

A few weeks ago I read the article, Are You Lacking Focus? This Easy Week-Long Ritual Can Help. It suggested a method for keeping clutter from my mind and improving my focus. As this is essential to my life and business, I tried it.

Here is the suggested practice:

  • Set an alarm to sound every four hours.
  • At the alarm, write down anything in your head that is not directly associated with the task at hand.
  • Become aware of that thought.
  • Be ready to eliminate it from your mind the next time you recognize it.

That’s it. Sounds simple, right?


© Flickr user ashton

So I set the alarm on my phone for 8 am, noon, 4 pm, and 8 pm. After one day, I decided to adjust to more conducive times for my own schedule: 8:45 am, 12:45 pm, 4:45 pm, and 8:45 pm. I used blank 3×5 cards to capture my thoughts every time the alarm sounded.

Did it work? My result was mixed. Some alarms went off when I had no cards or a pen. Some alarms occurred when I was in a meeting. I even had an alarm sound when I was in the checkout lane of the grocery store. After a week, I had recorded only 60% of the scheduled times.

But, the information I captured was interesting. Sometimes it was whatever I was going to next. Other times the thoughts were completely extraneous. And at times there were larger projects or issues that I had been considering.

I found it strange that this exercise didn’t give any guidance on what to do with your written thoughts. The article assumed that these thoughts didn’t need attention and that they should be banished. But what if they were important? Some of my thoughts were important. I think a better practice would be to review the cards from the previous day, and add actions or projects as needed to your own planning system.

As a practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done for over 15 years, I already have a habit of capturing my thoughts. This exercise had some redundancy with the Getting Things Done system. But if you’re not using that (or any other system of ubiquitous capture I can see how it will be valuable.

Did it help? I liked the alarms every four hours as a reminder about capturing ideas and staying focused. Going forward I plan to keep the 8:45 am, 12:45 pm, and 4:45 pm alarms on weekdays. This simple addition to my day will enhance the systems I already have in place.

Overall, this exercise was enjoyable. I did find it to be a learning experience. If you struggle with focus (squirrel!), maybe this exercise can give you insight into how you may improve.

But moreover, the issue of focus is one that all of us should take into serious consideration. We live in a world where we are often pulled in many directions. This may be ringing phones, distracting sounds, or the countless priorities we have. Knowing how to focus on just one task is crucial for Getting Things Done.

Perhaps one subtle lesson of the activity is that we all have a tendency to try and multitask. But, multitasking really doesn’t work. Acknowledging thoughts we have and putting them aside is a skill, and it takes practice.

And, that may be a little like workplace meditation. While it may not be right for everyone, the principles are worth looking into. Pause to reflect. Then, clear your mind. And finally, move on with your day.

Good luck!

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Mark S. Brown
Mark S. Brown is an executive coach who is passionate about personal development. He works to make a difference in people's lives by empowering them with skills and knowledge that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in. Mark has been coached, mentored, and certified by John Maxwell and his team. This coaching certification allows Mark to successfully coach and train individuals, groups, organizations, and companies.
Mark S. Brown


Executive and Business Coach at New Roads Leadership. A founding partner of the John Maxwell Team. We coach for your personal success!
Mark S. Brown
Mark S. Brown

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