mental lint

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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.