When I use this simple tool, I banish distractions. You can, too.
Have you ever had one of those days you really needed to banish distractions? Yesterday morning, at 4:00 AM, my husband got out of bed and howled in pain. He could not put any weight on his foot. Pain radiated up his leg. Neither of us had slept much during the night, and now it was over. Obviously my long ‘to-do’ list wasn’t going to get ‘ta-done’.
We spent the next 4 hours in the ER. While I sat in the car waiting due to COVID protocols, he was iced, x-rayed, ultrasound-ed, and pumped full of morphine and another powerful painkiller that didn’t seem to help much. Thankfully, his condition turned out to be non-life threatening.
Has this ever happened to you? Sometimes life’s interruptions high-jack your day. You spin your wheels, busy, busy, busy, but nothing gets done. Your blood pressure rises, your anxiety spins out of control, and you can’t concentrate long enough to finish simple tasks let alone meet your goals.
This type of negative stress gives you hypertension, anxiety and depression. The stress you have when you aren’t making progress towards your goals is defeating. But there is positive stress that helps you meet your goals. How can you tap into that when life blows you off course?
As a teacher, I was constantly stressed trying to juggle my responsibilities in the classroom with those at home. I had difficulty concentrating and getting things done. Worse, my family felt like orphans during the school year. Something had to give.
My stress almost disappeared when I stumbled across a simple tool that another teacher used.
I banished distractions. It was magical.
And, it was analog. A simple spreadsheet that listed my whole week and helped me set goals for each day was exactly what I needed. I tweaked the original spreadsheet until I had one that worked perfectly for me. When I went home at night, my family had my undivided attention.
Before I retired from teaching, I worked with students who had difficulty with focus and time management. They forgot assignments, missed deadlines, and genuinely couldn’t understand how other students could do so much with ease. Their frustration level was high and confidence low.
Most solutions were too complex or took too long to manage. So I taught my students how to use my spreadsheet. They only had to keep up with their simple weekly plan sheet.
Keeping it simple, for all of us, made it do-able and sustainable. Making it analog minimized distractions.
How it works to banish distractions
This spreadsheet allows me to keep my ‘To-Do’ list right in front of me in one place. It also shows me any meetings, phone calls, or appointment times I have each day. There is a place for me to make important notes or jot observations.
This is all done by hand because research shows that writing something down helps you remember it better. The more often you write something, the more likely it gets into your brain. If you have it written down, you’re less likely to forget it. So…don’t shy away from this low-tech solution.
Then there is the satisfaction of getting to cross off the things you have finished. Crossing items off their lists allowed my students to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. It gave them a sense of accomplishment.
Step 1 — Set Your Goals
At the beginning of the week, I take 10 minutes to look at my monthly calendar where I have written all my appointments and deadlines for the month. I write down any appointment or meeting times listed on my spreadsheet next to the days when each occurs in the current week.
My 3:00 Zoom call on Wednesday, gets listed next to Wednesday on the spreadsheet. Soccer practice on Friday at 6:00 gets written next to Friday. Each appointment or meeting should be listed in the order they occur with the time noted.
On a separate sheet of paper, I keep a list of goals and tasks I want or need to accomplish. This includes long and short term goals for both for work and home. I decide which ones I will focus on this week and which day I will work on each goal.
I write my tasks/goals in the ‘To-Do’ column next to the day I plan to accomplish each task. If I have recurring goals or ‘To-Dos’, I type them into my master spreadsheet to save time each week. I make a duplicate of the master sheet and label it with the current week’s dates.
I make sure that the days and times of all my meetings and my on-going goals are still correct. If anything has changed, I move or delete it before printing my weekly plan sheet. Then I keep it, and my monthly calendar with me at all times.
Step 2 — Refresh daily to banish distractions
Before you begin each day, look at your weekly plan sheet. Do you have anything else that you need to do that day? Pick up prescriptions, get milk, make a phone call? Add it to your ‘To-Do’ list.
This takes less than five minutes, but it gets you started on the right track at the beginning of your day. When life’s interruptions cause you to lose focus, take a minute to refresh and refocus on the tasks that you need to get done.
When you get distracted, having something physical to look at anchors you to your goals. Use it as your compass to steer you back on track and resume your charted course. Reflect on why you are distracted. Are you bored with a task? Do you need to come back to it after a short break? Do you have a meeting or deadline?
If you have a meeting in 10 minutes, pick a task you can finish quickly. If you have been slaving away at something that is difficult or boring (cough, cough — housework), pick something you want and like to do. The important thing is to use your weekly plan to meet the goals you set for yourself.
Don’t forget to cross off the goals you complete and give yourself a pat on the back.
Step 3 — Reflect, Revel and Reset
At the end of each day, take five minutes to review your plan for the day. Make notes about what you did that wasn’t on your ‘To-Do’ list. Did you have interruptions or discover something interesting to research?
Take the time now to cross off ‘Ta-Dones”, if you haven’t already. Revel in them. Doesn’t it feel good?
Is there a task you need to do next week? Do you have an upcoming deadline? Was there a task that you need to move to another day? Write them down on the day you will do them or note them in your ‘What do I need to do next week?’ column.
Did you miss a meeting? Put a check mark next to the meetings you attended and an ‘x’ by ones you skipped. If you need to do something about that (ie. talk to your boss) note that on your ‘To-Dos’ for tomorrow.
Review your ‘To-Dos’ and meetings for tomorrow. This will help you lay them aside, confident that you aren’t forgetting anything. You might be surprised how much better you sleep at night.
At the end of each week, (could be Friday afternoon, or Sunday afternoon) reflect on how your week went. What went well? What went wrong? Can you pinpoint a cause of the problem? What might fix it?
Finally, set yourself up to succeed the next week. Fill out your weekly plan for the upcoming week. Review your monthly calendar and make sure any new or unfinished ‘To-dos’ from your previous week are included this week.
Banish distractions in less than 10 minutes a day. It will change your life!
When my students first started doing this, they complained. Hard! People avoid change like a toothache. But you can’t always avoid toothaches.
Then the magic happened. After about three weeks, they realized that they were remembering to do homework they would have forgotten. The papers they got back had higher grades. And their parents weren’t on their cases anymore.
They started asking for the plan sheets on Friday afternoon instead of groaning when I handed them out on Monday. They enjoyed getting to reflect about their successes and had better attitudes about their failures. We kept their completed weekly plans in a binder and regularly celebrated their success!
They learned that failure wasn’t permanent, just a problem to be solved. And they had a way to solve it themselves. They felt empowered. Some of them began to experience better mental health, too. Relieving bad stress can do that.
- Set your goals
- Refresh daily to banish distractions
- Reflect, revel and reset
It sounds simple, and after a few weeks of practice, it will be.
Pat Davis, a retired teacher and editor of Simply Living and Living Simply, lives with her husband and neurotic cat, Neko. She loves to read, write, travel, bake, garden, sew, and craft. Top writer in Food and Cooking.
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