Battling Monkey Mind: How I Stay Organized & On Task

by Dec 5, 2017Wise0 comments

Everyone struggles with their monkey mind at some point in their life. For most of us it begins in school and if we aren’t careful can easily spill into our careers and every other aspect of life.

I was inspired to write this post based on Tim Urban’s blog post on Why Procrastinators Procrastinate and his TED talk, Inside The Mind Of A Master Procrastinator. They are essentially the same content, but I recommended reading then watching to get the full scope of how a procrastinators mind works.

Oddly enough, some of my best work has been produced from last-minute panic induced all-nighters. I can remember back to middle school and doing entire science fair projects the night before the science fair and still getting 1st or 2nd place. Or through college where I would have weeks or months to write something and I would knock out 10+ pages the very last day it was due and still get a B or an A.

I don’t say that to brag but rather to say that in the end, things usually work themselves out one way or another.

Regardless of things usually working out, it’s still an awful way to work. The added stress, the lack of sleep, and the poor diet that comes from throwing everything else aside really takes a toll after awhile.

This quote by another of my favorite writers, Anthony Bourdain, sums it up nicely:

“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy” – Anthony Bourdain

Image result for anthony bourdain watch old movie smoke weed

Now that I am writing so much I have deadlines all the time. I was forced to come up with a more sustainable way to keep everything organized, flowing at a steady pace, and actually finishing the things I start. I’ve had to learn to contend with resistance and find a system that works for me.

Now that we have a baseline, I’m going to share what my routines, habits, and tools I have cobbled together to create a semi-functional system tobattling my monkey mind and accomplishing my goals.

Routines and Habits For Suppressing My Monkey Mind

Here’s what an average weekday looks like:

0445: Wake up

0500: Writing time block

0645: Get ready for work and take care of my dog

0730: Commute (podcasts or audiobooks usually)

0815: Meditate/Journal in my car before work

0830: Work

1200: Workout or do more writing

1300: Work

1700: Commute (music usually)

1800: Dinner

1830: Writing time block

19:30: Admin work

2000: Spend time with my wife (TV, reading, talking)

2100: Journal/Sleep

Depending on the day I will swap some of those Writing/Creative blocks for another workout, walking the dog, or going out to dinner with friends or family.

On the weekends I try to find larger writing blocks of time. Usually at least 4-6 hours a day and spend the rest of it with my wife or family and friends. I also attempt to push the majority of admin work, household chores, errands, etc. to the weekend so I can do it all lumped together.

This routine I found works the absolute best for me because my willpower is steadily zapped as the day progresses. My creative and content producing side is at its best in the mornings and towards and at the end of the day I tend to focus on revising, editing, and publishing, and taking some time for myself to recharge.

This routine of mine has been steadily evolving over the last couple years, but there’s X things that I have learned this year that have made a profound impact on my productivity, effectiveness, and overall mood:

  1. Meditation
  2. Journaling
  3. Time-blocking
  4. Fasting
  5. Weekly Review (GTD)
  6. Checklists & Templates
  7. Saying No

Meditation

10-minutes of Headspace every day. Usually in the morning before I go into work or before I begin a writing block. This simple daily practice has really helped me slow down and start to appreciate the life I have been given and focus on what is truly important to me.

I also use it as a way to reset before switching gears.

Going from work to writing? Meditate to unwind and switch gears.

Going from writing to family time? Meditate to stop my brain from thinking about work and business so I can be more present with my family.

Had a tough day at the office? Mediate to reset and restore.

Journaling

5-minutes in the morning and 5-minutes in the evening. As stated in a previous post, I use the 5-minute journal.

I planned on writing a longer post about journaling, so initially, I thought I would keep this section brief. However, I think most of what I would say in a 2,000+ word post can be summed up here in a few paragraphs.

Most people who really know me understand that I’m a Type A person. Which is defined as someone who is characterized by ambition, high energy, and competitiveness. Along with those (what I consider to be wonderful) characteristics comes a higher susceptibility to stress and heart disease.

How this relates to journaling is that I have noticed a profound impact on how I see the world when I regularly use my journal. It isn’t quite as dramatic as wearing rose colored glasses but for someone like me it’s likely the closest I will get without drugs. Here’s three quick points about the effect journaling has had on me:

1. Daily gratitude

This is the secret sauce to why journaling has become such an important part of my day. It makes me appreciate all the things I have going for me. It forces me to look on the brighter side of life for a moment.

It is exactly the reality check I need each morning before facing people who, as Marcus Aurelius so famously said are, “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” Instead, we must recognize the beauty of what’s good and right with the world in this moment.

2. Forgiving myself and others for not living up to my expectations

This also was huge for someone like me. Most of my friends, family, and my wife aren’t Type A like myself. Sometimes I get caught up thinking, “If I can do this why can’t they?” Which is the wrong answer, every time. Projecting my high expectations for myself onto other people will result in being let down and hurt feelings every time. Journaling helps me cut the bullshit and appreciate other people and myself more.

3. Daily reflection on what is working and what isn’t

This is a cool way for me to start catching patterns. I will notice that several days in a row something will be preventing me from seizing the day like I had planned. Then I can strategize and come up with clever solutions.

Time-blocking

Scheduling time to do my writing and fiercely protecting it has been a game changer for me. I used to brush off writing as a secondary activity. If someone asked if I had plans Tuesday night and I had a writing block planned I used to say no. I now realize that was a mistake. We should be fiercely guarding the time for our life’s pursuits. Time planned for ourselves is just as important, if not more important, then time we have planned for others. Treating it that way really helped me push through some ruts and plateaus this year.

Fasting

The go-to choice for meeting up with friends, family, or going out with your significant other has all but become one option: going out to eat.

Practicing self-restraint all the time is exhausting. This year I have really started making fasting a bigger part of my daily schedule. Most weekdays I fast 24 hours, only eating at dinner time. The weekends and special occasions are usually when I dip into a second meal of the day.

I find that fasting not only helps my waistline but my focus also. It takes less willpower to simply not eat versus trying to eat the healthy option or limiting my portions. That and I always feel tired or lethargic after a meal. Nothing gets my monkey mind thrashing about worse than the rollercoaster of sugar levels rising and falling abruptly. I’d sooner skip a meal to stay on task then fall into a food induced coma.

Weekly Review

This little gem I picked up from David Allen and his Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. Each week, usually Saturday morning I take some time to go through all facets of my life and do sort of a pulse check.

  • How much closer am I to my goals this week?
  • What this week isn’t working or is distracting me?
  • What this week is working and I should sustain?
  • What can I still get done this weekend?
  • What do I plan to accomplish next week?

I also use that time to clear out all my different inboxes. My email, my Evernote, my physical mailbox, etc. It helps me clear my mind of all the clutter so I can better focus on my One Thing.

Checklists & Templates

Reducing cognitive loads has become very important to me. I don’t want to bog my mind down by trying to remember too much, so I have started to rely on checklists and templates for mundane or repetitive tasks. A lot of this is work related so I won’t bore you with it.

I will say that if you aren’t using checklists or templates each day you are doing yourself a disservice. You are using up a lot of your finite willpower on these tasks.

How many times have you sent the same kind of email? Make it a template.

How many times have you done that repetitive task that has dozens of steps to remember? Make a checklist.

The beauty of the checklist/template is that you’re much less likely to make mistakes. In a world plagued by distractions, it is becoming ever harder to get into a flow or to stay in one. I find I make most of my mistakes when I have been distracted mid-task. I don’t remember where I left off and ended up skipping over some important detail. Checklists are perfect for eradicating this problem.

Another benefit of checklists and templates is that you can outsource your work. As your business or work grows, you can hand things off to an assistant or third-party with a checklist or series of templates. This way the quality of your work doesn’t suffer and you can focus on more important tasks.

Saying No

Reaching goals or fulfilling lifelong dreams are easily sidetracked by the requests of the world. Dinners, lunches, grabbing a coffee, meetings, concerts, conferences, double dates, weddings, game nights, road trips, vacations, etc., etc.

Sure, they all can be a lot of fun and really fulfilling, but I often find myself over calendered and overcommitted. Usually, these commitments fall at the worst possible times. Near a deadline, a time of added stress, or when I’d simply rather be doing something else.

This is where learning to say no has become so important to accomplishing my goals.

Tim Ferriss’s new book, Tribe of Mentors, is riddled with examples of what to decline and how to say no. My favorite by far is Kevin Kelly’s where he says,

“Whenever I am trying to decide whether to accept an invitation, I just pretend it is going to happen tomorrow morning. It is easy to say yes to something happening six months from now, but it has to be super fantastic to get me to go tomorrow morning.”

Also on a podcast (probably Tim’s again), I heard this little gem:

When presented with a request or deciding whether or not to do something ask yourself on a scale of 1-10 how excited you are about. The trick though, is you cannot say 7. The number 7 is a cop out. The easy way out.

An 8 is resoundingly a hell yes and a 6 is without a doubt a hell no. The choice is then clear.

Capturing Thoughts, Staying Organized, and Tools I Use Daily

Last but not least, I wanted to share a roundup of all the tools I use every day and a short note on how I use each one. They all have a special place and purpose to capturing random ideas, thoughts, to-dos, commitments, and gems from books, podcasts, and YouTube videos. 

The number one thing to stave off my monkey mind is to jot down ideas and thoughts immediately. If I let them fester or go unchecked then before I know it I am down a rabbit hole or vigourously working on tasks and projects I shouldn’t be. If I write them down then my monkey mind is temporatily satisfied with the notion that I may actually revisit them later.

Google Inbox – This is where most items are captured or flow in from. If you aren’t familiar with Google Inbox, it is the fully featured, more attractive version of Gmail. While it has many great features, my favorite by far is the ability to snooze emails. So if something arrives that isn’t relevant to my current place or time then I can snooze it. This essentially tucks the email away until a later time and date of my choosing when I am likely more capable to address it.

Google Inbox is great for capturing short-term ideas and holding onto links to things I’m interested in. Once a week I go through and attempt to hit Inbox Zero. This typically involves archiving finished or unnecessary items, filing references away in my commonplace book, or transferring the items over to Evernote or Trello where they are stored as action items for later.

Google Calendar – For hard dates and keeping track of what bills are due when.

Evernote – The tool I have abandoned several times and keep coming back to. Evernote is a robust note collection tool that stores just about everything from book ideas, book and podcast notes, articles ideas, movies and shows I’d like to watch, business ideas, recipes, and everything in between. Between Google Docs and Evernote, I find myself repeatedly referencing materials and expanding upon thoughts and ideas.

I have my Evernote notebooks separated into the following categories Healthy, Wealthy, Wise, Writing, and Inbox.

  • Healthy = Recipes, workouts, and other health-related items.
  • Wealthy = Budget, notes regarding bills, or notes from calls or transactions made.
  • Wise = Notes from reading books and articles, watching YouTube videos, or listening to podcasts. It will also have quotes and reference materials.
  • Writing = Article ideas, aritcle outlines, links and other research items, a swipe file, and notes on how to get better at my craft.
  • Inbox = Everything I have yet to categorize, delete, or transfer to Trello.

Trello – My project management software of choice. I’ve tried everything from Basecamp, Asana, Todoist, and more but nothing compares to the Kanban cards in Trello. I use the GTD Approach To Maximizing Productivity With Trello which involves a column for my Inbox, Projects, Waiting, In Progress, and Complete. I have Trello Boards for business, for writing, for large articles, and one for my personal to-dos.

Momentum Dashboard on Google Chrome – Each day I take a few minutes to look through Trello and figure out what my top priority is for the day. What’s the One Thing that I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Then I put that as my priority goal in my Momentum dashboard.

Then it’s time to get to work… without my monkey mind.