In past editions we’ve talked about the importance of Focus and how the world is actually working against you.

Reminder: Studies show that too much unfocused time degrades your ability to concentrate when needed. Multi-tasking regularly actually diminishes your capacity to focus on discrete tasks. 

Even when you’ve trained your focus muscles, when you switch among tasks there’s a certain amount of switching cost. The switching cost is even higher if you’re moving from an unresolved issue. This relates to work and study. If you have 100 things hanging over your head you cannot completely focus on the task in front of you.


1. Touch it once.

You’ve probably heard someone extol the virtues of zero inbox. This is kind of like that. If you have many things that require an action or a decision, commit to touching those things once and moving on. For those of us who seek to optimize, this can be a big initial challenge. But the benefits are profound. 

Ask yourself this: Do I need to be an expert on this or can I accept the best fit option?

Imagine you need to get a rental insurance policy in place. You could review the potential policies at several providers or you could state your requirements and ask a broker to find you the best price based on your requirements. If a best-fit option will suffice, you proactively make a decision on what you want/need and off-load the legwork to someone who has better connections in the industry and better understanding of particular policies to place your policy. 

You save time, but more importantly you save the mental work of understanding the differences in coverage at each of the insurance companies, comparing/contrasting those differences, the mental shift you make about your needs/requirements, etc. You prevent yourself from becoming a temporary Rental Policy expert. 

For those of us who just need something in place, the amount of time the policy deserves is small. 

2. Write down solutions as they come to you.

When issues/decisions are more complicated or legitimately require more attention, you may have ideas pop to mind as you’re trying to shift among tasks or as you’re working on other tasks. Rather than switch tasks, write down what comes to you even if it isn’t totally comprehensible. Keep pen and paper handy at all times and even consider keeping a notebook with divisions if you have a few main projects that take your attention so you can keep this stream of consciousness organized.

From Daniel Levitin, 

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

“When we have something on our minds that is important— especially a To Do item— we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something that cognitive psychologists actually refer to as the rehearsal loop, a network of brain regions that ties together the frontal cortex just behind your eyeballs and the hippocampus in the center of your brain… The problem is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them. Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.”

3. Off-Load trivial things that have consequences.

Do you find yourself looking for keys, pens, or sun glasses, etc? I hate wasting time on activities with zero benefit. Trivial matters are a part of life. But looking for my keys need not take more than 1/2 second. When you have a specific place for items you frequently use, your brain knows where the items are and lets go of the feedback loop necessary to remember where you last put them. Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of OCD that you keep items in a regular place.

This goes for anything that is trivial – where I actually keep my keys – but has consequences – if I can’t find my keys I can’t leave the house and my dog can’t hold it much longer…. 

Automate that activity and you’ll free your mind to do more important work.