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5 Techniques to Keep Your Train of Thought on Track

by | Sep 14, 2010

How easy is it to derail your train of thought? Are you easily distracted, or does it take a catastrophic event to lure your attention from a given task? I’d say most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Today I’d like to give you a few tips on how to keep the creative engine running a steady course. And perhaps point out a few pitfalls you might want to avoid. I’d like to start with a simple piece of advice: Watch out for R.O.I.

Allow me to explain.

My husband suffers from an acute condition I like to call excessive R.O.I.: Random Observational Interruptions. In the midst of conversation, be it lighthearted or serious, he notices something in his peripheral vision which causes a lapse in his ability to listen and an impulse to blurt out a complete non-sequiter based on his observations. It’s particularly noticable when driving.

Yesterday, for instance, while discussing how smart phones and social media are changing the way companies approach their marketing strategies, he suddenly motions to the right and announces, “Good News is down that street.”


The conversation came to an abrupt halt as I struggled to figure out what earth shattering news he must be about to reveal, only to discover he was thinking of taking our new truck in to Good News Auto for a once-over.

Needless to say, in 5 seconds I’d completely lost my train of thought.

It’s moments like those, which inspired me to come up with a list of techniques that help keep my ideas on track.

5 Techniques to Keep Your Train of Thought on Track

1. Visual Reminders: I admit it. My name is Brandy and I’m a list-a-holic. I would join a 12-step program just so I had 12 steps to complete. But there is method to my madness. Lists make us accountable. I love to make little empty check boxes next to each item so that when I complete it I get the reward of checking it off the list.

To-do lists are great visual reminders. But so are piles. An In box/Out box system works too. The trick is to create a visual manifestation of what you need to complete so you have your goals in front of you. With this type of accountability it’s easier to stay focused on the tasks at hand and not allow your mind to wander.

2. Remove Distractions: Ahhh, distractions. Damn their clever disguises. I believe they are the number one cause of thought train derailments. But there are some simple defensive measures we can take to protect ourselves.

  • Clear the clutter. A disorganized desk can be distracting as it often reminds us of other projects. Clean-up and you’ll find your focus.
  • Sound off. Email notifications, a ringing phone, talk radio; all these can be toxic noise pollution when you’re trying to concentrate.
  • Curb hunger. Keep a couple snacks nearby, healthy munchies, and a bottle of water. A grumbling tummy is a sure fire way to send your mind out to lunch.

3. Track Your Time. As a freelance designer I keep a time sheet for each project. Since I often charge by the hour it’s a necessity. But it’s also a great way to schedule my time. When I have the visual reminder of the tasks that need completion, and the log of how much time I’ve spent so far, it’s a powerful incentive to stay focused and move forward with every passing minute.

I should mention what a healthy motivator guilt can be. If you’re being honest about time tracking and suddenly you see significant blocks of time allocated to “internet research” or “social media” a little voice called Accountability starts whispering in your ear and suddenly Focus walks back in the room and takes a seat behind the desk.

4. Avoid Task-Hopping. For many of us multi-tasking isn’t a habit it’s a way of life. We’re checking email, while talking on the phone and listening to voicemails in the background. By definition, multi-tasking divides our focus. So avoiding it would be best. Yeah right.

Here’s a more realistic suggestion. Focus on one project at a time. Even if you start with invoicing then stop to write an email, followed by a phone call to a supplier, you’ll still be following one train of thought if you stick to one project. While these tasks all require different actions they are still related, and therefore help keep you focused and on track. If suddenly you’re called into a meeting to discuss a new client you’ll notice a sudden downshift in momentum. That’s the thought train slowing down. Watch out.

5. Time-boxing. This is a new technique for me, but I like it. Time boxing is a method for scheduling the amount of time you work on a project. Instead of sitting down to an open ended deadline, or working until the project is “done,” you set a time limit for each work period, and focus all your efforts on a short period of time. If the project isn’t finished when the time is up you allocate another time to work on it, and move on.

How does this strategy help maintain focus? By setting tight constraints on your time, say a 30-minute block to write a blog post, you make a commitment to yourself. It’s that accountability that prevents procrastination and task-hopping.

I’ve only scratched the surface on the methodology behind time-boxing. But it’s worth further exploration. Check out this link for more details.

So the next time your thought train is headed off a cliff, try one of these techniques to get back on track. And remember watch out for R.O.I.; also known in my house as “Deer!”

Authors note: When you live in northern Michigan, and spend hours driving along wooded back roads, it’s not that random to hear exclamations identifying wildlife that may be considering a leap in front of your vehicle. It is, however, distracting and therefore a perfect example of R.O.I. Especially when said “deer” is 300 yards away.


  1. Lane Milligan

    Brandy. Great Blog. I need this. So happy to be working with you. Lane


    hi! i loved this. I am very interested in using a time sheet to track my time on projects. Can you share an example of how you do this? Thanks.


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About the Author

Brandy Wheeler

Brandy Wheeler is the Creative Director and right-brained partner at Visitors Media. She’s a pysanky-making figure skater with a knack for finding Petoskey stones at the beach. Armed with an Albion College degree in visual art and 25 years of experience in graphic design and marketing she loves to share her expertise in writing. You can also find her on-camera as the founder and voice of the Traverse Traveler brand.

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