Our series on reducing mental effort continues.

Pre-process distractions

What do you do when you’re distracted by emotions or other circular thoughts, and you can’t be very productive?

Some people say to just push through and do your work anyway. I’ve tried this and found that it hasn’t worked well for me. I can work a bit, but if my mind keeps dwelling on something else, I’m certainly not working at full engagement. But nor do I like taking a full day just to deal with emotional processing.

So here’s a good solution: Devote a modest amount of time to pre-process whatever is distracting you. You may not have time to resolve it fully, but you can process those thoughts and feelings well enough to prevent them from distracting you throughout your day.

Grab three pieces of blank paper and a pen, and simply write out your thoughts and feelings as they come to you. Keep going until all three pages are full. Listen to whatever your mind wants to say, and flow it onto the page.

This normally takes me about 45 minutes, so roughly 15 minutes per page. It’s fine to pause and think now and then, but try not to pause too long. Just keep emptying the contents of your mind onto the page till all three pages are full.

You don’t have to solve anything. Again, you’re just emptying the contents of your mind onto the page. Let the parts of your mind that have been distracting you have their full say.

Be absolutely candid. Swear onto the page if you’d like. Be as honest as you can about what you’re thinking and feeling. Assume that no one will ever read what you’re writing. This is for you and you alone.

When you’re done writing three full pages, you can read them over if you like. If you see any actionable ideas, you can capture them on a separate page and later process them into your system that we mentioned in Part 2 of this series.

Afterwards I recommend that you destroy those three page, such as by shredding them. If you establish the habit of always destroying the pages afterwards, it will encourage you to be even more candid each time, which makes the exercise more effective the more you practice it. If you censor yourself as you write, it will be less effective.

The main benefit of this exercise is that it moves cluttered thoughts and feelings into the logical part of your brain. In order to write down these thoughts, you have to linearize them. You have to think about them differently than if you simply allow them to bobble around in your mind. Writing them down helps to move the energy out of the mental circuits that are causing circular thinking. It helps your mind let go and restore a sense of peace.

For really severe cases of circular thoughts and feelings, you may need to do this exercise for a few days in a row. Usually two or three days is plenty to create a serious reduction in the amount of distraction you experience.

When I do this simple exercise, I usually find that it’s well worth the time. If I think I might need to do it, it’s wise to do it. Afterwards I feel calm and peaceful.

You might be wondering if you can just do this on a computer or other device because it will be faster. It will indeed be faster, but my experience is that it’s also much less effective. Handwriting engages more of the brain than typing because you have to form the individual letters rather than just pushing buttons. Somehow this makes the mental processing work much better. It would say that writing is roughly three times as effective as typing, so I’d only recommend typing if you’re really short on time and you barely feel distracted.

Taking 45 minutes to make several hours a lot more productive seems like a fair tradeoff. And if you’d otherwise be worrying about something for days, then the payoff is even higher.

Many problems can arise during your day that knock you off balance. If you can effectively set them aside, then great – do that. But if you’re still feeling distracted a few hours later, and you notice that your productivity is suffering for it, it may be worth the time to pause, pre-process those distracting thoughts and feelings, and then return to your original work. This method is especially helpful when you don’t have time to fully resolve a new issue that comes up, and you need to stick to your original priorities with good focus.

We’ll continue with Part 4 of this series tomorrow.