How do I know about wandering minds? Well, to start with, I have one.
“Please, turn in your homework.”
As a kid, the phrase would regularly strike fear into my gut. As I sheepishly looked around, my neighbor’s would dutifully pull their work from desks and backpacks, making that horrible shuffling noise that everyone around me knew what they were doing except for me.
Not again…, *sigh, When was this assigned?*
I’d look through my backpack and jammed somewhere in the corner was a crumpled up, unfilled, piece of homework.
The shameful feelings were never far.
Nodding my head in conversation even though I was getting lost, the struggles of trying to keep on top of work, and the attempts to force attention were all exhausting.
It’s not that I couldn’t concentrate. It’s just that my attention wasn’t always so easy to guide. If I got into Legos, a game, a piece of music, anything I found interesting, I could dive into it for hours.
Unfortunately, I’d forget to do other things I needed to get to.
Still, I was able to make it through for the most part. Being bright, I could understand things pretty quickly. I’d do fine on tests. I’d do fine with homework so long as I could remember it existed. My system of–put undone stuff on the left, do the stuff in front of me, put the done stuff on the right–kind of worked.
But I came through with a few scars. Tons of time wasted, exhaustion, routine collapsing, and more, didn’t need to happen.
Fast forward to today: I’ve been through medical school, have a solid psychiatry and psychotherapy practice, a second business as a writer and teacher, am a husband and father of two, compose and perform at the piano (quite well if I might say), and still have time in the evenings to watch a show or play a game.
So, what changed? Stories often have a sense that there was some single event that made everything better. But, I’m not sure that our stories are as reflective of reality as we’d like them to be.
It was a series of things…
First, I am utterly grateful to my friends and family who’ve stuck with me over the years. I am also indebted to my own psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
Secondly, I discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD).
In it were the promises that lured me in and continue to inform how I organize my surroundings to support me to get to where I want to go. Specifically:
- You can organize by getting things off your mind.
- You can build a system you can trust to keep them off your mind.
Using a task manager (an early version of OmniFocus), I began taking the steps of implementing the GTD methodology.
And, it kind of worked!
Except, it worked a little too well, though I hadn’t realized it yet.
First, I was just excited that I had a way of organizing myself.
Looking around the net, I felt that OmniFocus wasn’t being used to its potential. So I wrote a post about using it. Ken Case, the CEO of the Omni Group, retweeted the post.
It got like a thousand hits. It blew my mind. I’d never had that many people at my website.
So, I decided, what if I wrote a comprehensive post or series of posts about using it. So I did that.
But it wasn’t comprehensive enough. I wanted to write something that would take a person from zero knowledge to being a pro, one step at a time.
I thought it would be a 50 page PDF. It turned into over 500 pages.
“Well, I guess I gotta sell this thing.”
I did. And it was a hit.
Then Merlin Mann got a hold of it and mentioned it to David Sparks on a podcast. And it, too, compounded the hit.
As the Omni Group continued to improve OmniFocus, I would write a next edition, each one developing my work processes as they went.
I thought, why? What’s so useful about this? Other books and courses about OmniFocus were out there, too. Why was this one continuing to do well?
In the end, I believe it was the psychological approach to work, play, and our intentions as well as the practical integration that really made it stand out.
So, I started what I thought would be a small supplement to the OmniFocus book. It would be about the importance of play in work. What a simple phrase. That shouldn’t take long.
Wrong again. It took two editions and eventually 500 more pages to describe the pursuit of mastery and meaningful work, which is ultimately what productivity is about. It’s about going beyond productivity.
Even so, the system worked, in some ways, too well. I was doing far too much and running myself ragged.
I hadn’t quite learned that just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should.
And so, I began to develop a “navigation system”, a central guide that would keep me from taking on too much, that would help me know where to say “no”. By seeing my limits in front of me, I could rest on the sense that I was human and could only take on so much. It much it much easier to tell others and myself “no” where I needed to so I could say “yes” where I wanted to.
Eventually, I expanded the ideas of a centralized system to work with any tool including pen and paper with a self-paced course called Being Productive.
Unfortunately, it didn’t connect with everyone. Some found it powerful, but others couldn’t get past the first few steps. I didn’t know why. I had to realize it was the same issue that plagued any system.
The answer was in returning home: the wandering mind.
Those deep emotions of interest and disinterest, the years of scars from the struggles between past, present, and future selves, the feelings of shame and anger, the feelings of “I don’t wanna!” all contribute to that struggle, no matter the methodology.
Bringing it all together, I have created Waves of Focus: Guiding the Wandering Mind. It is what I would like to have had for myself, whether in the early stages of my private practice, college, or even somewhere in high school if I could have realized I needed it.
A wandering mind can be a powerful mind.
The work is in guiding it, not controlling it. It’s in finding and caring for those relationships between those parts of ourselves that want to do things and those that absolutely do not, to weigh the feelings of resistance, to know if they are well-founded or merely self-sabotage.
It’s about supporting agency, our ability to decide, where we didn’t think we could.
Doing so allows us to move forward, not with pressure or force, but with a calm and gentle focus. We can feel that, to a reasonable degree, what is important is addressed, what we want to do is in front of us or on a real horizon, and that our sense of play and flow is active and engaged in the moment.
Home, Ithaca, is here and now.
PS If you’re interested in getting announcements about about the next Waves of Focus course as well as a free PDF of the anchor technique, [click here – newsletter] [sign up here – blog]. The current plan for the next cohort is early October.
Clear the Mess & Find Calm Focus
- Being Productive – Find calm focus one step at a time
- Creating Flow with OmniFocus – Master a power tool of task management
- Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink – Have your ideas and files at your fingertips
- Workflow Mastery – Advance beyond simple productivity into the personal and meaningful
- Waves of Focus – Guide the power of a wandering mind