Joel’s Note: This is a guest post from Saul Of-Hearts.
I have a hard time working mindfully.
As a trained yoga instructor with a regular meditation practice, achieving mindfulness when I’m working shouldn’t be a problem for me.
I live in an intentional community with seven other creative people, so I’m very mindful of social dynamics and house responsibilities.
But for some reason, when I sit down to write (like right now), my mind won’t behave. I find myself following trains of thought that are totally irrelevant to the task at hand.
It’s distracting, disrupting, and counterproductive.
Let me give you an example. One of my part-time jobs is delivering organic vegetables to houses around Los Angeles. Three days a week, I’m on the road from about 9 a.m. until shortly after noon.
This seems like the perfect opportunity to think over my plans for the day, make a mental to-do list of what I need to get done, and be energized to work when I get home.
Sometimes it actually is perfect, and the time away from my computer is just what I need to recharge.
Other times, I’ll spend the drive composing a blog post (like this one) in my head … and forget the vast majority of it by the time I get home.
Rather than just moving forward – salvaging what I remember – and re-thinking what I don’t, I’ll obsess over the words that I forgot.
It sounded so perfect the first time. What was that phrase I came up with while making that left turn from Rosecrans onto Sepulveda?
Or, I’ll make a mental to-do list of four or five items — simple things, like responding to an e-mail, or tweaking my website. I’ll get home, speed through most of the tasks … and then forget the last one on the list. Sometimes I’ll forget if there even was a last one. Were there five items, or just four? Did that task count as one item, or two?
Rather than put it behind me, create a new to-do list from where I am now, and stay focused on the present, I’ll obsess over that ghost of an item that may or may not have existed in the first place.
The Big Challenge
Getting distracted by stray thoughts might seem like a stupid thing to stress about. Just get over it and move on, right?
But if you’re also burdened with a hyperactive mind and obsessive thoughts, you know that it’s not that easy.
So why not find a way to fix it?
If your body were giving you trouble — if spending the morning in the car gave you back pain, or sore legs — you’d do something about it. Maybe you’d exercise more, or take up yoga.
But approaching our mind this way seems strange to us. We think of our mind as us.
I believe we need to look at our mind as a tool that can over-react and malfunction just as surely as our body can. If our legs insisted on running every time we got to our destination and we’re ready to stay put, we’d recognize that something was wrong.
Why do we let our minds get away with running … and running … and running, when all we want is to stay calm, stay focused, and stay still?
I haven’t mastered mindfulness yet, but I’ve hit on a few tricks that have been working for me and I want to share them with you.
1. Don’t Rely on a Mental To-Do List
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ignored my better judgment on this one. I’ll convince myself that this time is different — that these items are so simple and straightforward, there’s no way I’ll forget them. Time and again, I’ve been wrong.
Now, I make sure to write down all of my to-do list items as quickly as I can. You can use a premium app like Things (iOS only), or just rely on old-fashioned paper-and-pencil. Whatever you do, get it out of your brain as soon as possible. Relying on a forgetful brain isn’t a great idea.
2. Find a Direct Path for Getting Ideas to Your Workspace
A lot of my best ideas come about while I’m driving. For a while, I’d struggle to write them down as a note or a text message on my iPhone (always while pulled over to the side of the road, of course.) Other times, I’d verbally record them, but the hassle of syncing my iPhone and sorting through the various recordings meant very few ideas made it to my laptop.
Now, I use Evernote. At first, I didn’t understand what all the hype was about. But after a few weeks of using it, I’m sold.
When I’m on the road, I verbally record my ideas directly into Evernote from my iPhone. When I get home, they’re already synced to my laptop.
The best part?
I don’t even need another program to transcribe my mental notes. I can simply listen to them on Evernote and type out the words in the same document. It may not seem like a major change in habits, but it is for me. Finding the shortest route from brain to workspace makes a big difference.
3. Don’t Listen to Irrelevant Thoughts
Ignoring distracting brainwaves is easier said than done, but it’s key to getting rid of those obsessive thoughts.
Our thoughts thrive on attention. They’re like babies who won’t stop crying unless you sit by their bedside until they fall asleep.
I was distracted by unimportant thoughts because my brain was looking for closure. It wasn’t satisfied when I finished a task on my to-do list. Even if I said, “Brain, I’m done with this task. You can stop reminding me,” it wouldn’t listen.
My brain insisted on replaying the experience like a bad song stuck on repeat.
You need to train your brain to accept that it may not always find closure. There will always be some thoughts left hanging, some ideas that feel incomplete. Once you accept that feeling for what it is — an illusion that has absolutely no relevance to your productivity — you’ll find the permission you need to stop being distracted.
You’ll know that it doesn’t mean, “I forgot something.” It just means, “Damn, my brain’s gone haywire again.”
Following a thought until your brain is satisfied might make you feel better, but it won’t get you anywhere. Time to call its bluff, pull rank, and let your brain know who’s boss.
How do you keep your brain from running on overdrive? Have you found any other strategies that bring calm and focus to your creative work?
Saul is a writer, musician, and videographer based in Los Angeles. He’s lived and worked among various subcultures, studied everything from yoga to evolutionary psychology, and loves to write about where art and science meet. Follow his adventures at http://saulofhearts.com/, or join The Lateral Freelancer to learn about unconventional ways to making a living.