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Does this happen to you as well? That you have so much on your mind that you get lost. That you feel like you can’t focus anymore? Then it is time for a spring clean! Not only the physical one, but also in your head. A research from 2008, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that if you have to make too many choices, you are less able to focus. And you are getting worse in finishing what needs to be done and are less able to perform complex mental tasks. Daily tasks for a PhD student!

Almost 400 people joined 7 experiments and were asked to make choices or rate different products. The more choices people had to make and the more time they spent deciding, the worse they performed with anything they had to do afterwards. Even if the choices were simple, they turned out to be a huge influence on everything afterwards. Do you recognise this?

So because of all the choices you have to make, you can’t focus anymore.

Luckily there are some simple tricks to solve this!

A first step is to ask yourself what would be possible if you were truly focused. And then I’m not just talking about your job, but about all other aspects in your life as well. Would your life look different? What would be different? See if you can get all this clear.
Take a few minutes to do so, en visualise you are truly focused. What does that look like? How do you move? Where are you? How do you sit? How do you relax? How do you behave? How do you talk? What are you doing?

Probably a visualisation like this can help you identifying a few things you want to do differently. Well done! Choose 1 or 2, write them down on a sticky paper en put it in a place where you can see it. That will help you to remind the 1 or 2 things you want to change. Don’t try to change to much, because that will make focussing even more difficult.


Another important step: have a spring clean!

How? By making what is called a ‘master list’. What is a master list? It is a list where you put on EVERYTHING, really EVERYTHING that is going on. If it is in your head, it is important. So, if anything crosses your mind, write it down. Do a proper brain dump about anything that is going on. All loose ends, all jobs that need to be taken care of, appointments that have been postponed, that call you still need to make, that pile of paper that needs sorting… Put effort in making the list, and make sure you finish the list within a week.

The next step is to get yourself a big box: put all ‘stuff’ you’ll find in there, things that need to be done, so you gather everything in one place. Simply walk through your home or check your working place and collect everything. In that way, things are no longer spread but in one place. The advantage: everything that is everywhere is disctracting, it helps to be more focussed.

Walking around literally, but also mentally. That brings you back to your master list: anything that has to do with your PhD, what is it that you don’t want to forget, that still needs to be done?

Don’t think about job ‘stuff’ only, also think about other aspects of your life: what still needs to be done as a partner, a friend, a parent, a …?

By gathering all the information on your master list and in a box, it becomes clear what is actually present all of the time in the back of your mind and asks for attention. By making all the ‘ stuff’ more explicit you create an overview and you can make decisions about what you want to do with it. It is like a broom through your house, your workplace and your head.

And then what? What to do with the list and the box? Make sure you make it manageable. Ask if there are things on your list for such a long time, that you’d better get rid of it. Look if you can make a distinction between things you need to do immediately and things that can wait. Can you cluster things, or turn them into a small project? Then gather the tasks and order them if possible.

The next step is easy. Get yourself a timer and take 2 times a day 10 minutes to get rid of part of the list or empty out part of your box. Keep on doing that for a while and – depending on the length of your list – you made sure you got rid of all the loose ends, made decisions about things that were in your head all the time. No loose ends, empty head, focus is back!

Please let me know how this works for you!

Picture via Flickr, met dank aan Ryan Harvey

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