mental lint

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Check email. Get the new window screens. Pay the co-pay for the emergency room trip last spring. Geraniums. 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 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.

to do list

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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.

mental storage

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Create Mental Storage

A lot of the mental lint isn't what you need to do—it's what you want to do. 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.

make lists

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"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.

check in

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Check In Once

Some to-dos—say, planning a trip to West Virginia—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.

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Ask Why

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.

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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.


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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.

gadget exposure

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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.

clear your mind

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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.