Here’s the situation:

You’re deep into a complex task that requires your full concentration, and you’re doing a great job staying focused. Suddenly, you remember something you need to do.

  • You still need to email that client back with an updated quote.
  • The car needs new tires before the big road trip, and you should compare prices.
  • You want to send a sympathy card to a friend.

Deep down, you know you shouldn’t abandon what you’re doing to switch to this simpler, more urgent task, but you’re afraid that if you don’t do it right now, you’ll forget. You try to turn your attention back to the complex task at hand, but the thought pesters you. What if you forget? Better just do it now.

This kind of task-switching kills great work. Fortunately, there’s a simple fix.

The old “letter-tray-and-scrap-paper” trick

Like many effective productivity tactics, the concept is simple (and straight out of GTD):

When you’re working, make sure you have a way to quickly record thoughts and ideas as they come to you.

I keep scrap paper and a letter tray on my desk. When a thought interrupts me (as happens all the time), I just grab a piece of paper, scribble down the thought, and drop in my inbox. I can then return to the task at hand with a clear head, knowing I’ve recorded the thought somewhere I’ll see it soon.scrap paper and letter tray

I cannot overstate how well this works.

Writing down nagging thoughts is one of the best tricks out there for staying focused on a big task. When we’re able to keep the little stuff out of the way, we can get the big stuff done much more easily.