It’s very easy to get distracted. Happens to me all the time.
Distractions aren’t necessarily a Bad Thing. I think they’re a sign of an active and curious mind, and that’s a Good Thing. I definitely don’t want to stomp on the inquisitiveness that causes them. However, I do need to somehow corral them so that I can get on and do what needs doing. How do I do that?
The easiest way I’ve found is based on something I learned from meditation. When you’re trying to meditate, it’s inevitable that your mind will wander. You’re supposed to be concentrating on your breathing and you start thinking about what you’re going to have for tea instead. It’s normal.
The problem is that the frustration you’re likely to feel when this first happens is the thing that will break your focus completely and make the task impossible. This is a big part of why a lot of people give up. However, although you can’t avoid the interruption, you can learn to react to it differently. In terms of meditation, you recognise the thought, and that it is unhelpful for the current task, and then you put it to one side. The aim is to stay calm and to acknowledge rather than block. Blocking just encourages your subconscious (which is the source of the interruption in the first place) to serve the same thing up again a minute later as it realises that you were ignoring it. If you acknowledge the thought and then quietly put it down again, your subconscious may feel like it’s been heard and forget about it too.
In terms of creative work, I try something similar.
Here’s an example from this week. I was working on Project Shuriken and needed to reorganise some of my files. In the process of doing this, I came across something I didn’t recognise, so I opened it to see what it was. Unsurprisingly, it was the germ of a game idea I’d jotted down a couple of years ago. The rest of the things I’d gone through while reorganising stuff had been easy to put back. I’ve got hundreds of these files, so it’s not unusual. However, in this case some confluence of things that I’d been doing that morning combined to set off my creative juices, and all of a sudden I’d got a deluge of ideas for how to fix an issue with this idea, and where to take it from there. Nothing to do with Project Shuriken, but very much a distraction, and very much shouting for my attention RIGHT NOW.
So, what to do?
I used to try to stifle this sort of thing and get back to the task at hand. However, this doesn’t work. I know from past experience that my subconscious won’t shut up about this until I deal with it, so now I do the following.
Firstly, as with the meditation, I acknowledge to myself that I’m being interrupted, and that’s OK. It’s part of being creative. There’s no need to panic.
Secondly, I tell myself that I’ve got a 20-minute break from my main task to capture this new, feral thought, and tame the heart of it by writing it down.
By formalising these steps I’m telling my subconscious that I’m dealing with it, so that when I get back to my main task it doesn’t need to interrupt me again. It’s OK. You’ve been heard. It’s been dealt with.
Twenty minutes is enough time to brain dump what I have to start with and cover the initial burst of enthusiasm and ideas. Strike while the iron’s hot. Get it down while you’re got it fresh and you’re making all the connections. At some later stage you can come back and sift though it to see what you have. For now, you’ve got the main task to get back to.
Also, remember how much I like notebooks. I can’t say enough how vital it is to keep notes of your ideas. They are fleeting, and you never know which ones will be gems. Note them down while you can.
Overall, this has worked well for me. Sometimes the 20 minutes stretches into half an hour, other times I’m done in 5. It depends on what I’ve got. You’ll learn to know when you’ve emptied the initial bucket of enthusiastic ideas and froth. That’s all you need to do. Now your subconscious will go back to quietly plotting world domination, and you can get back to work.
Interestingly, far from eating huge amounts of time, I find this process often leaves me feeling quite energised, and my main task benefits too. Aren’t brains strange?