Using WHY to Avoid Distraction


In my article Death of the To-Do List, I talked about how to dramatically improve productivity by getting the right things done. But one of the biggest challenges that thwarts progress is distraction.

It is so easy to get distracted – both by external forces and internal mind wandering. However, there is a way to keep distractions at bay, and it is this:

For each goal you set, write down WHY it matters. Put this right underneath the goal.

WHY image example

Use any system you’d like for tracking your goals. I use Bear (for Mac) for my goals and project notes, and I track all my actions in Things 3. But the tools matter very little – use whatever works seamlessly for you.

Setting a WHY for every major goal is not only important to help clarify the relative priority of each goal, but, more critically, to provide a solution for when we get distracted from the goal.

It’s not a question of if we’ll get distracted from our goals, but when. And having a plan in place, ahead of time, for how to handle each distraction is the difference between average productivity and exceptional accomplishment.

Some distractions are easy to plan for. For instance, I know that I’ll be tempted to open email and see if there are any important messages in there requiring my attention. So I plan for that by writing down – before I start working on my goal – what I’ll do when that temptation arises. This is what I write on my goal page in a section I call “Likely Distractions”

Distraction image example

Distraction: I’ll be tempted to check email

How handle? I will keep my Gmail tab closed until 4 pm. That’s my timeblock for checking email. There is no need for me to check before then. And if, on the extremely rare occasion there’s something so urgent requiring my immediate attention, then someone will call or text me or show up at my desk with a flare gun. Otherwise, I don’t need to concern myself with email until then.

But other distractions don’t have such an obvious solution. For instance, what will I do if I get bored? Or if I’m tempted to check social media feeds. Or if my mind is restlessly wandering. For those potential distractions, I revert to my WHY – as in “Why is this goal important for me in my life?”

Since I already have that written down at the top of my page – right under my goal – it is easy for me to look there and remind myself why I am committed to making this happen.

Having that mental model of using my WHY to counter any distraction works like magic.

Try it out and let me know what you think.