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Brain Snags: The Little Things

Sink full of dishes. Dirty floor. Stacks of papers. A slight discoloration on an object. A rhythmic noise from the ventilation or ceiling fan.

A client recently asked me to help them deal with all the little things that go unfinished and become bigger messes. How do I follow through on the little things?

We usually notice the little things, but avoid spending any effort addressing them. Our mind classifies them as insignificant and quickly pushes them away. We consciously create blind spots to little things until they grow into messes that are big enough that they become impossible to ignore. 

Our stress about the big things becomes our justification for ignoring the little things.

Unfortunately, the outcome of ignoring something is never good. The first outcome is that we successfully forget about the little things, which leaves problems to worsen and demands greater effort to resolve in the future. 

The alternative is that we are unsuccessful in ignoring the little things; they continually poke into our conscious thoughts, snagging our flow again and again. In either case, the consequences compound.

Ignoring little things represents indecision. When you see something undone you know that, “I didn’t clearly know the next step or commit time to when it would be done.” Therefereore, it will haunt you, draining your focus power a little bit every time it snags your attention.

Let’s focus on general tidiness as an example of how to work with these brain snags as reminders and prevent them from slowing us down for good. Below, I’ve listed a tactic for each of the three treatment pillars: awareness, intention and action.

Awareness

When you notice something out of place, your mind snags on it. Thoughts rush through your head. It could be a split second, or it could sidetrack you completely. The brain snag is like an ant that needs to be squashed. You have 3-5 seconds to determine how you will squash it and act. After that, you will default to ignoring it like usual.

Use this window to take action. Simply ask yourself how long the little thing will take to address. If it’s less than 5 minutes, do it now.

I crossed the living room and saw a single piece of dry dog food that had jumped out of the dog bowl. It was sitting on the floor, less than an inch from the bowl. Not a great offense, but still, every time I crossed the living room, the crumb caught my attention, snagging a developing thought. 

I need to pick up the crumb eventually. If I pick up the crumb the first time, then I’ve saved time and mental fatigue because my thoughts aren’t slowed or diverted more than once. When the crumb is gone, you don’t need to think about it anymore. Move the crumb now.

Intention

Have a place to write down anything that will take over 5 minutes. I have a small notebook on my desk at all times. Dry erase markers for notes on the refrigerator, and the notes app for when I only have my phone.

These “thought gathering points” are linked to check-ins when I process the brain snags (or popcorn thoughts) that I’ve gathered throughout the day. I check my calendar three times per day. Morning, afternoon and evening. The morning is to set the schedule, the afternoon is to make sure I’m still on track and the evening is to reflect, re-adjust and add new things. The evening is to account for the day and make adjustments for tomorrow and the rest of the week.

Action

Make your decision and take action within that 5 second snag. Commit and be aware that you are committing. Either address the little thing now, or write it down at a gathering point and add it to the schedule during a check-in. Either way, you’ll have peace of mind that the little thing is taken care of and you don’t need to get snagged again.

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