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How to Create Margin For Your Thoughts


As someone who basically writes for a living, I find it very important to have undistracted time to actually do the work — the writing. This may seem obvious, but just because the time itself is set aside in my schedule or during my day, that doesn’t always mean that it’s going to be productive time. Being able to focus for an extended period of time without any distractions is actually becoming a very rare skill. This means that if it’s something you can figure out how to do, it actually can be to your competitive advantage.

The Dilemma

The dilemma is where you’ve got more ideas than time, and I think a lot of us can relate to that. More ideas than time, more work to do than time we have available, but yet, more time than focus, and that’s a huge problem. This means that when it’s time to do the work, you sit down and you’re distracted, struggling to think clearly, struggling to focus on the task at hand because instead you’re thinking social media, or you’re thinking about the news, or you’re thinking about some Slack channel, or thinking about checking your email. Whatever it may be, you’re drawn to these other inboxes and you’re distracted, disconnected from the actual work.

And if this compounds over time, on a regular basis, then when you’re sitting down to do the work you’re going to consistently be unable to focus. You will consistently be unable to get things done and you’re not going to be able to make significant progress on projects that you’re trying to complete. You’ll begin to feel like you’re spinning your wheels.

The thing is, you always need more time to do the work than you think. And that really stinks. We’re going to have more ideas than time, and that’s just the way things work. There will always be more work to do than available time.

But we also should have more focus than time, instead of the other way around. We need more focus than time. Meaning, time is the one thing that we cannot change — we can’t increase it, we can’t move it — time is just happening and it’s passing by. So time is our most precious commodity. If you’re able to be focused and present in the moment, then you’re leveraging all the time you have to use and you’re making the most of it. This is a huge advantage, not just in work but also just in life in general. We want to be able to do focused, deep work on a regular basis, we want to be present and in the moment. And if you can do this, it’s gonna help you get more work done in less time and the work that you produce is going to be of a higher quality.

Margin for your thoughts

So with that said, let’s talk about how to have margin for your thoughts. You may be thinking, “what does that even mean? What is margin for my thoughts?” Think of margin as breathing room. Think of it as white space. Margin for your thoughts means that you have the brain space that you need in order to think clearly. It helps clear out the cobwebs, clear out the dust, clear out the distractions, and helps you to be focused and present in the moment. And this goes far beyond just doing the work, this goes for so many areas of your life. This is such a valuable topic.

I’m going to give you three ways to create margin for your thoughts. Number one is practicing deep work. Number two is using tools that help you to stay focused when you’re doing the work. And number three is to be bored. That’s it.

Practicing Deep Work

My first tip is to practice deep work. Here’s how I do it: I have a set time each day that I write and I do nothing else until the time is up. That is my writing time — it’s my deep work, focused time. And doing this consistently helps keep that focus muscle strong and helps it to not atrophy.

If you’re just starting out, then do this: start with 10 minutes. Use your watch, use your phone, use a kitchen timer, whatever you want. Set a timer for 10 minutes and just use that time to write. That’s it. Just do that for a little while, get used to it, and then after maybe a week or so, add 10 more minutes. Do that for about a week, add 10 more minutes and repeat this until eventually you’re able to write for an hour totally undistracted with focus. That’s huge, you built that deep work muscle.

Use tools that help you to stay focused

Tip number two: using tools that help you stay focused. Now, one reason among many that I love my iPad is just how free from distraction it is. I feel like when I’m using the iPad, it basically becomes the app that I’m using. Whether that be Ulysses, or Things, or GoodNotes or whatever app I’m in when I’m working on the iPad, the app becomes the iPad and they become one. It’s very much like anti-distraction software. This is a very different experience than when I’m on my Mac, where I feel like the application I’m using is just one among many open windows. It’s just more distracting.

When you’re doing a task, whatever that task is, use a tool that’s going to help you to be present and be focused on the task at hand. So maybe it’s using an iPad, but it could be something like pen and paper or using a notebook or whiteboard, I’ve got one in my office. Whatever it is, use a tool that helps you to be focused on that task at hand. This is being engaged in that task and getting into the zone. The point being that there’s nothing wrong with being aggressive about making sure that your workflows help you to be more focused. So, use tools that help you to focus.

Be bored

All right, lastly, here’s the third tip: Be bored. This is a unique time in the history of mankind where boredom is now a choice. You’re at the doctor’s office, you’re in line somewhere, you’re at a stop light, and you do not even have to be bored for one second. You can pull out your phone and check the news, check social media, whatever. There’s actually a direct correlation between being creative and having ideas and allowing your mind to have time to be idle. Manoush Zomorodi wrote this book called Bored and Brilliant and in it she asks this question: “Could your lack of ideas be directly correlated to your lack of boredom?” The answer is “yes.” When we are never bored, it will be harder for us to be creative and have ideas because our mind never has time to rest and think.

With that in mind, I want you to ask yourself this question, when you have a moment of downtime, what do you do? Do you reach for your phone or do you allow yourself to be bored and just sit? If you allow yourself to be bored, it will help you be more focused. It will actually help you be more creative in those times when you’re doing the deep work. Which for me is the writing time.

The result

By practicing deep work, using tools for focus, and being bored, you’re going to create margin for your thoughts and this is gonna help you be more focused, be more present when you’re doing the work each day. This goes beyond just the work. It’s goning to help you be more focused and more present in the other areas of your life, such as time with family or friends and other things that you’re doing.

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