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Feeling Scatterbrained? These 14 Tips Will Help You Focus

by Silvia

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Key points

  • Create systems to address scatterbrain with organized structures.
  • Designating a specific place for every object you own helps create structure in your environment.
  • Focus on mono-tasking by reducing multitasking and organizing your environment.

Oh no… you forgot another deadline, again. Really, you would have done it on time if only you hadn’t forgotten to put it in your agenda… speaking of which, where is it? It must be somewhere in this mess, which you had started cleaning up 4 times already before something or other distracted you.

This is called scatterbrain — and most of us have been there at some point. For some, it’s a problem that seems to haunt our lives. I’m buying all the folders, the apps, the tiny sticky notes that God knows what they’re for… why can’t I stop being scatterbrained?

The issue is actually a combination of having the right mindset, and putting systems into place to keep you in check. Without both of these, it doesn’t matter how thick your agenda is or how great your intentions are. And that’s what the 14 tips below will take you through. Get ready to learn some great mindset and strategies for how to stop being scatterbrained.

My own experience with being scatterbrained

So you might be wondering, who am I to teach you how to stop being scatterbrained? Am I some Monica-like neat freak? Or am I the embodiment of the sad but all-too-often-true joke “Those who can’t do, teach”? 

Well, I was more on the side of the former. But the truth is, I was never as organized as I liked to think. I met all my deadlines — although some of them involved all-nighters. You could fill an entire shelf with the half-started agendas and calendars I’ve had, not to mention the apps and platforms I’ve tried and abandoned. And you might have fainted at the sight of my room as a teenager. 

Over the years, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated at myself. So I set to work on it — and some tips actually worked, and stuck. Today, I can’t say I’ve fixed every issue, but I’ve definitely come a long way. 

The tips below are tried and proven from my own experience, as well as advice from some very wise self-development enthusiasts. I hope they will help you as much as they have helped me. 

What does it mean to be scatterbrained?

People often complain about things like missing deadlines or feeling constantly stressed, and attribute it to being scatterbrained. But that might not necessarily be true. For example, you might also miss deadlines because of laziness — or feel stressed because of general anxiety. There’s plenty here on Tracking Happiness to help you with those issues too, and anything else you’d like to improve in your life. 

But the tips in this article will help you if your issues come specifically from being scatterbrained. What does this mean? We can divide it into three main components: 

  • Problems with focus
  • Problems with organization
  • Forgetfulness 

Therefore, to stop being scatterbrained we have to address one (or all) of these smaller components. 

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Tips to get you started on how to stop being scatterbrained

Before we dive into addressing the three main issues with scatterbrain — focus, organization, and forgetfulness — let’s talk about the big picture. These are tips that will help prepare your mindset so the actions you implement will be most effective. 

1. Be willing to change

Have you ever purposefully kept trash lying around your house? Something you didn’t want, didn’t need, and kept anyway? Or purposefully made dinner with ingredients that you knew were bad? Probably not — when you don’t want something anymore, you get rid of it. So if you don’t want a habit of yours anymore, why do you still have it?

Louise Hay, author of You Can Heal Your Life, argues that it’s because you’re actually gaining something from it. For example, being scatterbrained could be giving you an excuse to not do some things that scare you, such as writing a book or finishing a course.

You might subconsciously be afraid that by achieving as much as you could, you would rise so far above others in your social circle that you would alienate them and lose their friendship. Or, being scatterbrained might be protecting you from diving deeper into a relationship or area of your life that you feel somehow scared of. 

It’s a complex idea, but one that’s worth giving some thought to. Another mindset teacher, Kathrin Zenkina, recommends brainstorming in the following way:

  1. Think about where your life is currently, in relation to the problem you want to change. What are the downsides of this problem?

Ex: I have to pull stressful all-nighters to get things done when I remember them last minute. 

  1. What are the upsides of this problem?

Ex: Because I’m frequently doing things last minute, I have an excuse for not doing my best. I avoid the fear of failure, because I didn’t give myself the chance to give it my all in the first place. 

  1. Now, what is the reality I want? What are the upsides of this?

Ex: I give myself the chance to do many times better than I do now. I get things done early and have a calm, stress-free existence. I feel confident and responsible. 

  1. What are the downsides of achieving what I want?

Ex: People would rely on me more, which means I would disappoint them much more if I would mess up. I would have responsibilities I’m afraid to face right now. It’s easier to not give them any expectations. 

The point of this exercise is not to find excuses why a problem is actually okay — but rather to identify things that might be hidden blocks in your subconscious. Find a way to reframe or overcome the cons of learning how to stop being scatterbrained. For example, is it true that becoming more organized means you can NEVER ever mess up again? When you examine these thoughts, they’ll stop holding power over you. 

2. Have a big picture

Once you have eliminated blocks that keep you scatterbrained, it’s time to define what you want to achieve. 

Why do you want to stop being scatterbrained?

The obvious answer here is “so I can be more organized,” but dig deep to find a more personal “why”. What will this bring you?

You might come up with answers like:

  • So I can improve my self-esteem and feel better about myself.
  • So I can have more time to spend with my family.
  • So I can reach my goals faster.

THIS is what will keep you going forward in learning how to stop being scatterbrained. You might find it helpful to put it on a vision board, make it into a resolution, or write it on the first page of your agenda. 

3. Know your weakness

Thirdly, as great as your intentions may be — and as excited as you may be feeling after the last exercise — we need to remember that we are human. 

No matter how organized a person is, they will eventually forget to write something down, miss an appointment, or lose a sock. Some slip-ups like this are inevitable. Forgive yourself when they happen.

And, know what they are so that you can plan ahead to prevent the bulk of them. If you know you have a particular weakness, then make sure you choose a system to help you overcome it. 

Improve your focus to stop being scatterbrained

Now let’s dive into addressing each of the three main causes of being scatterbrained. The first one is problems with focus. The tips below are targeted specifically to help overcome this. 

4. Get enough quality sleep

It’s ironic to think that many people — myself included — skip on sleep to stay up late trying to organize themselves. This is very counterproductive. You might create a detailed schedule for your next day, but you’ll also give yourself:

  • Memory issues
  • Mood changes
  • Impulsive decision-making
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Higher risk of accidents and injuries
  • Anxiety

Does that sound helpful for not being scatterbrained?

So before you try anything else, make sure you hit the sack. Research suggests that 7 hours of sleep are necessary for proper brain functioning. But note that this is not the time spent in bed — it’s the time spent sleeping. I found it helpful to wear a fitbit to bed which records the amount of time I’m actually asleep, and not, you know, lying awake rehashing all the stupid things I said the day before. 

Another cool app I’ve discovered is Rise, which actually calculates your “sleep debt”. Personally, seeing a metric like this helps me give it more importance and prioritize it. 

5. Minimize distractions

So often we berate ourselves for what’s wrong with “us” and our minds, but we forget to take into account how much the environment affects us. 

It’s not something you can turn off — it’s literally coded into your survival instinct. The prehistoric human who was oblivious to the lion lurking nearby was the prehistoric human who became the lion’s dinner. You were literally made to pay attention to and react to your surroundings.

So use this to your advantage. Make sure you set up your environment so you don’t have 17 half-finished tasks screaming “pick me!”. This goes for your physical environment as well as your digital one, or anywhere where you want to stop being scatterbrained. 

Use these tips: 

  • Finish your day by organizing or cleaning your space, so it’s tidy for the next day. 
  • Minimize noise pollution as far as possible — get better-insulated windows, buy a white noise machine, or if nothing else, get a pair of Loop earplugs
  • Clean up your phone notifications. Would you want a notification like this to interrupt your work? If not, turn it off. Or better yet, delete the apps you don’t need.
  • Use your phone’s “focus modes”. This is a setting where you can choose what notifications or sounds your phone has depending on your activity. For example, you can make a setting so that when you select “work mode,” you still get notifications from Slack and email, but nothing else. For “personal mode”, you don’t need Slack notifications anymore, but you might want to see reminders for your Duolingo or Udemy course. 
  • Close all tabs. Seriously. What this does is give your brain 14 more things to think about every time you’re trying to focus on a task. If you really need to have multiple tabs, then drag one out into a new window, finish it, then close it. Or, just write the “pending tasks” into a list and close all the tabs. Then work through the list one by one. (I am so fantastic at taking my own advice that I have no fewer than 27 tabs open as I write this. Don’t be like me.)

6. Give yourself some mind-wandering time

If you struggle with being scatterbrained, you might feel like you don’t remember enough. But the problem could actually be that you’re trying to think about too much

This is a common issue experienced by people who try to be ultra-productive. You don’t want to let any time go to waste, so you try to use all the time you have productively. 

But the brain is not meant to use every single minute of every single day thinking about something. It needs time to process and clear your mind. If you don’t give it any, it’s like vacuum cleaning your house but instead of collecting all the dust, the machine spits it back out the other end. 

Make sure you have times throughout the day when you allow your mind to do nothing. Here are some activities that are great for this:

  • Commutes — instead of playing a podcast or mindlessly scrolling, try just staring out the bus window.
  • Coffee or food breaks — just as long as you don’t need to chat with someone. That too requires thought and focus. 
  • Mindless tasks like vacuuming or weeding

Or, you can just sit and stare into space. This is downtime in the true sense of the word. You let your mind wander and focus your attention inward rather than on the world around you. 

7. Learn how to mono task 

Multi-tasking used to be such a buzzword, doing anything less than 3 things at once was like throwing time out the window. But now, thankfully, a new word has entered into our vocabulary: “mono-tasking”.

As I explored in my article on how to be productive (in a healthy way), multi-tasking is really not all it’s cracked up to be. You might think you’re getting more done… but it takes your brain time to refocus every time you switch tasks, which means each task ends up taking longer. Plus, you run the risk of a scenario like this: 

You’re in the middle of something and waiting for the webpage to load. While you wait, you go to send a message on Slack, and while you wait for that, you open the notifications column. Big mistake. 37 minutes later, you flick back through the 13 new tabs you’ve opened and realize the website has finally loaded — oh wait, has your colleague also replied yet? And round and round the merry-round goes. 

As someone who’s been there too often to admit, I can tell you it’s much more efficient to just sit tight through the 2 minutes of wait time and get at least the first item done. 

If thoughts keep popping up of “I also need to do this” and “oh no I forgot to do that other thing”, write them all down on a list. Stay laser-focused on the one thing you’re doing until it’s finished. Then you can move on to getting through the list. 

8. Define work time

One of the downsides of the modern “digital nomad” schedule is that there is no defined work time. Therefore, working hours become this elusive concept that seemingly blend into any hour of the day — whenever thoughts decide to pop into your head, or notifications into your inbox.

If you have this kind of work, it’s important to define specific work hours for yourself — and stick to them. If you have trouble with it, imagine it’s an imposition from your boss (even if you don’t have one). Or, set up software on your computer that locks you out of certain applications at certain times of the day, so you can either focus on work completely, or not at all. 

Improve your organization to stop being scatterbrained

Now let’s move on to the second main cause of being scatterbrained: disorganization. The next 5 tips will help you tackle that. 

9. Designate specific places for things

You know those things you’re always rooting for at the bottom of your bag, or through all your pockets? Here is an excellent strategy to never do that again.

Designate a specific place where things belong. For example, have a specific zip pocket in your purse or jacket where you always put your keys. Same thing at home — have a specific hook or bowl for them near the door. 

I’m proud to say that despite the staggering amount of socks I manage to misplace, I have never once lost a key or card thanks to this method. 

And you can apply it to everything — from chapstick to your gym clothes. Whenever you finish using an item, make sure you take the extra 15 seconds to put it back where you will look for it next time. 

10. Get more organizational storage

In order to really put the tip above into practice, you need to have enough storage space to organize everything you own. Otherwise, you might end up like me — I know I always put my pen back in this drawer, so why can’t I find it? Oh right, because I also put 36 other things in this drawer, and now they’re all piled up inside it like one big hot mess. 

That’s when it’s time to venture out into a furniture or office supply store. Get some storage items so that similar things can be stored together and easily accessed. And most importantly, find a way to organize things so that you can have an overview of them. For example: 

  • Use see-through boxes so you can see what is stored where
  • Files can be sorted with binder tabs or see-through pockets
  • For clothes, consider checking out the Marie Kondo method 

11. Use lists and calendars

Now that you’ve organized your physical space, it’s time to organize your activities too. There are lots of options for this — the most important thing is that you choose a system you can stick to.

Personally, I like to use Google calendar for any scheduled activities, and the Notes application for to-dos. I can access it anywhere, and I can make changes if I think of something I need to add to my list while on the bus. I break down my to-do list for “don’t forget”, “work stuff”, “daily habits”, and also a brief “scheduled events” section to remind myself what’s in my calendar. 

Some people recommend ditching the to-do list and just putting everything in your calendar. The plus side of this is that it forces you to choose a specific time for every item you want to do — better ensuring you will do it. You do have to be realistic about how much time you give yourself for each item, though.

Over time, this method can train you to better estimate the time things take, and perhaps also work more efficiently so that you get things done within their time slot. Apps like Motion can help you turn tasks into scheduled events. 

The opposite way is to just use lists, but make sure you work through them by priority. You first brain dump everything that’s on your mind, then pick out the three most urgent and important things on it. Work on those and only those until they are done, and then you can do the same thing to pick out the next most important tasks. 

Whatever system you choose, it needs to be something you keep coming back to. If you start to have three different places you write things down, you will just make your problem worse. Make sure it is the one and only place where you come back for order. 

12. Set aside time to plan

When you struggle with a particular problem, you need to set aside time to fix it. The same goes for when you want to stop being scatterbrained. 

The best times to do this is either last thing before going to bed or first thing in the morning. I personally like to plan each day the night before, because I can go to bed with a feeling of satisfaction that I know what’s ahead of me and I have a plan to tackle it all. But if you’re too tired by that point to plan things well, then the morning might be better for you. 

You’ll need to apply some discipline here to make sure you stick to the system you choose. In other words, don’t go to bed, or start your day, without doing your planning. So make it pleasant for yourself, so that it’s something you look forward to. For example, you can light a candle, put on relaxing music, enjoy a cup of tea, or use colored markers and stickers to plan out your day on your agenda. It should be like a self-care ritual, and something that aligns with the person you want to be. 

13. Reassess your systems

Here’s the pothole that many organizational systems get stuck in. You choose a system, you set it up, and then… nothing. Life rolls on, and eventually, things revert back into their natural form: total chaos. 

Whatever organizational system you implement — or even for focus or forgetfulness — make sure you come back to reassess it. Are you putting things back in their designated places? If not, maybe you need to find a new spot for it that’s easier to access. Are you checking the list where you write down your to-dos? Are you writing things down on it?

Some habits just take time to develop. But sometimes it’s the system that needs some tweaking. 

Avoid forgetting things to stop being scatterbrained

Finally, the last problem people experience when they’re scatterbrained is that they often forget things. 

Many of the tips we’ve already gone through should be able to help you with this. For example:

  • Getting enough sleep is proven to help with memory too
  • Organizing things with a clear overview helps you avoid forgetting what you have or misplacing reminders
  • Mono-tasking helps you finish one thing before you start the next, so it doesn’t slip your mind to get it done later
  • Putting things in your calendar or a list keeps them from just slipping your mind.

However, here’s one last tip that many scatterbrained people struggle with. 

14. Finish what you start

Have you ever wondered why you didn’t get a reply to an email, and then opened your inbox to find your half-written message in your drafts? Or get hit with a late fee because you got distracted by something when you logged into your online banking?

Sometimes we forget something because we’ve just got too much on our mind. And sometimes we forget it because we started doing it and we didn’t finish it. But when you start it, you turn off the “you still need to do this!” mental reminders. 

The easy solution? Finish what you start! If you really can’t because something urgent interrupted you, then at least take the 15 seconds to write a reminder in your tasks list. 

And as far as possible, try to minimize these types of “I’ll get back to this later” situations. For example, if you’re talking to a friend and they ask you something you need to check, do it right away. If you keep track of your spending, have your record-keeping app open when you pay at the store so you can write it down immediately. 

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Wrapping up

Now you have 14 tips for how to stop being scatterbrained. If you’ve done any kind of self-improvement work before, you know that improvement in any area will take time. Just like exercising starts showing after a few months of training, being scatterbrained is not something you can switch off with the snap of your fingers.

So think of this like going to the gym. Your first efforts may be a little tiring and feel awkward —  you’ll need to remind yourself of the systems you put into place and learn how to use them until they start feeling natural. But once you get the hang of them, everything will start going much more smoothly.

Silvia Adamyova AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Born in Slovakia, raised in Canada. Online English teacher, editor, copywriter, and translator. You’ll find me holed up in a bookstore, typing in a cafe, or immersed in a philosophical debate.

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