“Sit down at the table until you have finished your dinner”. As a mom, I can’t explain to you how many times I have said some version of that statement. “No, we can’t play trains until we finish putting away our cars”. At this point, my son usually puts away one piece of the train track, gets distracted by the cat, and I end up cleaning up the trains. Ah, distraction.
Children and adults, whether we like it or not, have monkey minds. We are unsettled. We are restless. And we are oh-so-easily distracted. We trick ourselves into thinking that this trait goes away in our adulthood, but it doesn’t. It just manifests itself in different ways.
Now, I will give all humans living in this decade some credit. We’re swimming against the tide these days. I, personally, have at least five things that can distract me from writing at any given time. I get a text from a friend, I get a work email, I get a notification that Nordstrom is having a sale, I have to pee, I notice that it’s too warm in my house and immediately want to pick up my phone to alter the Nest app. And, most of the time, the gratification for taking the bait of the distraction is almost always instant.
So, how do we train our monkey minds to focus on one task and be more productive than your average Joe? Well, interestingly enough, it helps if we treat ourselves like a two-year-old. Here are some things that are helping me stave off the distraction monster, focus just a little bit more, and slowly inch toward conquering the world. I hope these might help you as well:
Eat The Frog . . . And Then The Snake
My favorite quote from Mark Twain goes like this, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” This wisdom is right on the money. Most people lose their ability to focus as the day progresses. If you accomplish your most difficult task first thing in the morning, you’ll still have the brain power and willpower to do it.
Eating frogs probably sucks (I haven’t actually tried one). Your most difficult task is most likely not exciting and you’ve probably been putting it off for good reason. That’s EXACTLY why you should do it first.
However, my guess is that you usually inadvertently do a lot of other things before doing any frog consumption. You quickly check your emails to make sure there’s nothing pressing, scroll through the news just for a moment to see if the world is ending, check to see if you have any late night drunken text messages from friends to get a morning chuckle. Whatever.
The point is that you’re probably doing a lot of other things before you eat your dang frog. “Jimmy, sit down at the table and eat your frog. 1 . . . 2 . . .” Listen, your email can wait, you’ll probably know if the world is ending without reading CNN, and your friend will most likely be drunk again tomorrow night. SIT DOWN AND EAT THE DAMN FROG.
Now, AFTER you have eaten the frog, there is almost always an imperceptible but significant rush of adrenaline. You did it! It’s time to celebrate! Break time! Let’s go to Starbucks! NOPE!!! The difference between extremely productive people and the rest of the world is the ability to keep pushing forward after a success. Stay at the table after you finish your frog because there is a snake to eat, too.
Even now, I stopped typing and scrolled back to the top of the page to see how much I had written. Why? I dunno. I wanted to mentally congratulate myself for . . . writing? It made no sense and yet, I did it anyway. And, by scrolling up and seeing a typo, I lost my “flow” and 30–60 seconds of productive writing time. All of these distractions add up. In the great words of Dory the fish, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. Just keep swimming”. If you’ve completed one task, that’s awesome. Complete two and you’ll feel even more awesome. And then, eventually, you can take a break. Because you’ve earned one.
The moral of the story is: Wake up, do not pass go, do not collect $200, eat the freaking frog, and then eat the snake, too. That alone will set you apart from most other humans.
Set the clock . . . and put a notepad next to it
Another thing that can help focus your ever-distracted monkey mind is timing your work sessions. Set a clock for 30 minutes and work diligently until it goes off. Stand up, walk around, get some coffee, pee, and then sit back down for another 30 minutes. (I like apps like Focus Keeper that do it automatically for me and have pleasing sounds when they go off). We have all heard that this is a good way to be productive. But most people set their clocks and, well, still get distracted.
Listen, there is NOTHING outside of a burning building or someone needing the Heimlich that can’t wait for 30 minutes. However, we tell ourselves that we need a tissue, we need to warm up our coffee, we forgot to call and schedule that doctor’s appointment, we need to feed the cat, and we need to check that notification that just popped up on the phone with a new Medium article or . . . joy of joys, a new Medium FOLLOWER! I MUST SEE WHO IT IS RIGHT NOW!!!!
Yeah . . . nope. That’s the Distraction Monster f**king with you. Wipe your nose on your shirt, drink cold coffee, and your cat will live. So will your new Medium follower. You probably don’t know them anyway.
If you’re in the middle of a work session and you remember something you need to do, take your handy dandy pen and paper that should be right next to your work station and write it down. And then GET BACK TO WORK IMMEDIATELY. (Incidentally, you can set your timer for however long works for you. I change my times based on what I’m working on. Writing gets 40 minute sessions and spreadsheets get 25 minute sessions or my eyeballs start to bleed).
Trust me, when you finish a focused work session and you haven’t given in to distraction, you will feel like you have climbed Everest. And you will have accomplished twice the amount of work you would have accomplished if you had given in to the distractions around you. After your session, you can do whatever you needed to do, walk around, take a stretch break, and feed your cat. Live your life.
But guess what? After you get the rush of adrenaline of productivity without distraction, you’re likely to want to dive right back in for another one. You want back into that ZONE. (In all honesty, I highly recommend that you actually take your breaks, by the way. If you push too hard at the beginning of the day, you will end up being toast by 2pm and then you’ve lost all of the ground you had gained at the beginning of the day).
Get yourselves some accountability
I am part of a lovely group of individuals that get together from 8am-9 or 9:30am on Mondays-Fridays to work together. We work . . . together. Here’s how it goes. We log on to a Zoom meeting, check in and let each other know what we’re working on from 8:00–8:10am, and then WORK! Quietly. Every now and then someone will ask a question. I usually interject dumb things like, “What’s another sport like kayaking that you do on vacation that you can get dirty in?”. But other than that, we work.
Accountability is so important. Whether you log on to a work session with friends or you tell someone at the beginning of the week what you plan to have done by the end of the week, you will still be more productive and less prone to distraction if you have someone keeping you accountable for the things you want to accomplish.
If you’re a person that needs help admonishing the distraction monster, hop on a virtual work session with a friend and tell them to tell you to get back to work if you get distracted (gently). Basically, get yourself someone to act like your mom when you don’t want to eat your vegetables. And, in turn, you might be able to help your friend get more work done as well. Pay it forward! Bringing in another human to help you stick to your word when it comes to your productivity is super helpful.
One of the ideas behind accountability is the simple fact that your pride makes you embarrassed if you don’t do what you say you will do. If you don’t tell someone what you will do, then, well, your goals bounce around in the pinball machine of your monkey mind and you can rationalize pretty much any distracted failure of productivity. So, get yourself a buddy. Even if they don’t reciprocate and tell you what they want to accomplish, it still works to keep you on track and free from distraction.
The long and the short of it is, if you’re a grownup, your mom is likely not making sure you eat your vegetables, yelling at you to get your work done, and cleaning up your trains. Part of being a grownup is that you have to, well, parent yourself. While we think that, as adults, we have strayed far away from the monkey mind of a two-year-old, we really didn’t. We get distracted. We want to touch the shiny object, quickly check that text, and get instant gratification. Distraction is the number one killer of productivity and the more you can force yourself to sit at the table and eat your frogs, the more productive and successful you will be.