Woman meditating
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Check email. Get the new window screens. Pay the $10 co-pay for the emergency room trip last spring. Members' night at the museum (take kids?). Milk, milk, milk. Worry about my son possibly slipping in the tub and hitting his head. Try to remember the time I slipped and fell off the counter trying to open the window while talking on the phone (is that the cause of my back problems?). The movie I want to see with the girl from The Notebook and the guy who was the voice of Lightning McQueen. Geraniums. Talk to husband about water filter and West Virginia. Cats vs. dogs. The little known fact that Madonna can actually play guitar. Eureka: Buy nonslip rubber bath mat for the tub! Nobody took out the paper recycling again. Check email...

My mental lint. It drifts around in there—all these tiny bits of thought fluff that seem to be part of a crucial chain of logic that, once solved, might result in my being happier, more successful or even just the kind of person who remembers to toss her house keys in a bowl at night instead of finding them this morning—yes—in the toe of her green espadrille.

Reality check: There is no greater chain of logic behind all these nonessential thoughts. In fact, they get in the way of our thinking long term about stuff that really matters—like what's the right career move, or are the kids really happy at their new school? So how can we reduce these tasks and worries—or even, one day, get rid of them—to live more focused, present lives? We asked top productivity experts to give us their strategies.

Trash Your To-Do List
"Our biggest problem is the to-do list," says Laura Stack, author of Find More Time. A single, giant to-do list paralyzes people. Instead, make yourself a separate, shorter daily list, known as the hit list. "I ask myself every night, 'If I get nothing else accomplished tomorrow, what are the two or three things that I would absolutely have to complete to make me feel as if it were a productive day?'" says Stack. That's what goes on your hit list. The rest of the long-term to-dos—i.e., get a second mortgage or change the wallpaper—can go on a master list that you keep in a drawer and consult every few months.

Create Mental Storage
A lot of the mental lint isn't what you need to do—it's what you want to do. Perfect example: the movie I want to see with the girl from The Notebook and the guy who was the voice of Lightning McQueen. For these kind of nonessential goals, Stack advises what she calls category lists: Books to Read, Restaurants to Try, Movies to Watch, Wines to Taste, Hobby List, Errand List, Shopping List, Gift Lists. She even has a list called "Teachers" so that she can remember the faculty at her children's school.

"It's not like you're constantly reviewing these lists," she says, but they need to be with you (in a small binder, maybe) so that when you do unexpectedly find 15 minutes to run into a bookstore or pop into the hardware store, you're ready.

"Park" an Action Step
David Allen, famed productivity coach for executives, adds one extra piece of advice. Writing down the item is step one, he says—for example, "Mom's birthday"—but "Mom's birthday" will creep up again if you don't, within a very short period of time, make some decisions about what exactly that means to you. Are you going to give her a birthday party? Are you going to send her flowers?

"If you're trusting your psyche as your organization system," says Allen, "that part of you doesn't seem to have any sense of past or future. It thinks you should be dealing with Mom's birthday 24/7." So you need to consider what the next action is (it could be as simple as "buy and send Mom a card") and "park" that task on your shopping list until you have time to complete it. "Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them," says Allen. Once your idea—and the action it requires—is in a safe place, you can think about other, more important or immediate concerns.

Next: 6 more strategies for clearing the mental lint


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