How to Stop Getting Distracted by Thoughts: Use Notecards

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Organized Mind" by Daniel J. Levitin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do thoughts pop into your head and distract you? Did you just remember that you need to buy bananas?

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains how to stop getting distracted by thoughts by using a practical notecard system. This works because it sorts and stores information outside of your brain.

Keep reading to learn how to use this system to deal with distracting thoughts and stay focused on the task at hand.

How to Stop Getting Distracted by Thoughts

Our brains naturally want to wander—which often leads us to think of random but important thoughts at inopportune times. Sometimes, these distracting thoughts keep you from a more important task; other times, they merely arise when you can’t do anything about them. For example, you might remember that you need to call the dentist on the weekend when the dentist’s office is closed.

Here’s Levitin’s advice on how to stop getting distracted by thoughts: Use a notecard system. This externalizes and sorts your thoughts to ensure you get to them eventually. Carry a pack of 3 x 5 notecards. Every time you think of something unrelated to your current task, write it down. For even more dramatic results, spend a few minutes before difficult tasks writing down other things that might grab your attention. Doing so will clear your mind of internal distractions and improve your ability to concentrate. It’s critical to put only one thought on each card so that you can sort them more easily in the second step. For example, if you need to find recipes and go grocery shopping, write each task on separate cards.  

Second, Levitin suggests that you sort these cards daily. If you only have a few cards, you can sort them by priority. But if you have many, sort the cards into categories, then order them by priority within each category. These categories can be anything you like; some people divide their cards by urgency, while others divide them by topic. For best results, Levitin recommends you keep these cards relatively loose (for example, not in a binder) so that you can reorganize them easily as your priorities change. If you struggle to find a particular category within your pile of loose cards, add one colored title card per category so you can find them easily. 

How a Notecard System Improves the Quality of Your Ideas

In How to Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens describes a similar notecard-based system, or “slip-box system.” This system is also designed to make you more productive—not by helping you stay on track and keep up with your tasks, but by helping you keep track of your ideas so you can more easily have original insights.

Ahrens recommends that you use 3 x 5 notecards to record any random, potentially useful ideas (but not to-dos or potential distractions, as Levitin suggests) that occur to you throughout your day; he calls these “fleeting notes.” Store each day’s cards in one place, or an inbox.

Each day, review your inbox and ask yourself: How might these ideas connect to each other? Once you hit upon an original thought, create an “evergreen note,” which is a loose index card containing one fleshed-out, original idea. Regularly discard your fleeting notes, and place each evergreen note in a slip-box (a cabinet). Rather than dividing them by category or priority, file your evergreen note behind a) a note it connects strongly to (for instance, an argument it supports) or b) your most recent note. Then, go through your slip-box to see if this note is connected to any other notes, and write that down (for example, if Note #1 and Note #3 are connected, write on each note that they’re connected to the other).

The loosely connected nature of the slip-box facilitates original ideas: The process of browsing through the slip-box increases the likelihood you’ll have a creative insight, and since each evergreen note contains only one idea, it’s easier to connect these notes to other potential ideas. 
How to Stop Getting Distracted by Thoughts: Use Notecards

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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