Some to-dos—say, planning a trip to West Virginia (see previous page)—require talking to someone—say, my husband, whom I also need to talk to about water filters, bed times and about a hundred other things. Finding time to meet with him becomes a larger, rolling mental dust bunny that overshadows the drifting mental lint that I would like to discuss, some of which I forget...because I have so much mental lint in the first place.
"Rather than visiting the same person seven times a day," says Stack. "Make a list and visit that person once a day." This doesn't just go for family. It works equally well with co-workers and friends.
Another piece of mental lint: sponging down my counters. I could be on my way to defuse a nuclear bomb, and, rushing out the door and into the president's helicopter, I will have the thought, "Dirty counters!"
"The first thing to realize," says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, "is that you don't have to do something. You have to eat and sleep, and you have to make sure your kids do the same, but beyond that, most things in life are choices. And so it may help to keep asking, 'Why am I doing this?' Maybe there's a good reason, and then you can remind yourself that it's important, but maybe there isn't." And if it's not getting you closer to the life you want, it's off the list.
Focus on Your Core Competencies
Vanderkam believes that most people have what she calls "core competencies"—the things that we do best and that other people can't do for us. Usually, these fall into three categories: nurturing careers, nurturing our family and close friends, and nurturing ourselves. For example, only you can focus on your long-term career development; only you can play with your kids or build a relationship with your spouse; only you can sleep or exercise (unfortunately). And as for everything else that doesn't fit into those categories? Ignore, minimize or outsource.
So if I go through my mental lint, this is most important: finding out if the back problem is due to falling off the counter (nurturing myself), taking the kids to members' night at the museum (nurturing my children) and talking to my husband about vacationing in West Virginia (nurturing my spouse). Not geraniums, which I could still put in the window boxes...or could just forget about since it is July and people who really love gardening—as opposed to people who feel obligated to do it—plant flowers in the spring.
End the Multitasking Trap
"Constantly multitasking can be mentally depleting," says David Strayer, professor at the University of Utah and expert on the relationship between productivity and technology. "Mental lint comes from the fatigue from constantly switching from one activity to another to another without focusing on one task."
In other words, choose to do one thing at a time. Buy the nonskid bath mat at Ikea. Do not stroke a glow-in-the-dark moon lamp you don't need or wonder if you will really use cool elderberry syrup. Do not try to pay your phone bill while lost in Aisle 59. Buy the nonskid bath mat.
Limit Your Gadget Exposure
Strayer, who organizes studies on how the heavy use of digital devices and technology affects us, is also concerned about digital overload on the brain. In one of his studies, he gave a group of subjects a creativity test that measures, as he says, "how well you can see new associations and links between things you're looking at." Then he took the group on a trip in the wilderness without electronic gadgets for three days. After the trip, the subjects took the same creativity test to get reassessed. "We had about a 45-percent increase in scores," he says, "which is pretty substantial." A week later, he retested them, and the scores went back down.
"Check email" appears in my mental lint—a couple of times, in fact. If I established regularly scheduled times to check my email every day (say, 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.), I would not only not have the nonessential thought, I would not have it twice.
When you go on vacation, he recommends leaving the phone at home or leaving it in a place where you can make an emergency call if you need to. Another everyday trick: Change your email settings so that, instead of scheduling delivery every minute or two, it does so just two or three times a day.
Silence the Blips and Beeps
One tuft of mental lint is actually not a thought—but a noise. Your refrigerator, for example, may beep when the door is open. You car may honk or talk. "Engineers know how our brains are wired," says Strayer. "A lot of these things—phones ringing, the buzz of texts coming in—they capture your attention." To avoid getting distracted by devices that are engineered specifically to take us away from what we're doing, we need to set everything to silence—including, every once in a while, please, ladies and gentleman, ourselves.
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