How to Get Those Distracting Thoughts Out of Your Head When You’re Trying to Practice

“Argh…I really ought to clean out the kitty litter…”

“Hmm…I wonder if there’s a way to transfer MP3’s from my computer to my iPhone via wifi…”

“Crap…I need to find a good dentist.” 

That voice in your head can serve as a pretty helpful reminder service – though its timing often leaves something to be desired. 

These “Zeigarnik intrusions” can be helpful in some situations. But when you’re trying to get in the zone and have a productive practice session, it can be distracting for items from your to-do list to keep popping into your head. 

How can we reduce this mind-wandering when we have a bazillion things other things to do and need to make the most of our limited practice time?

Unconscious goal striving

The average student reportedly has 15 ongoing projects at any given point in time – from a paper to write, to a cute barista’s phone number to snag.

Though we can’t work towards all of our goals simultaneously, there is evidence which suggests that some part of our mind keeps these incomplete projects simmering on the back burner, looking for opportunities to complete these “open loops.”

That may help lead to those Eureka! moments where we are suddenly struck with an insight that helps us solve a problem, but it’s not so great for being 100% focused on the immediate task at hand, or performing up to our full abilities.

After all, our brain has limited cognitive resources, and we can’t be fully engaged and productive if we have kitty litter and baristas on the brain.

It’s like setting your snooze interval to 1 minute. Makes it impossible to get any meaningful snooze satisfaction, and is so annoying that you end up waking up and getting out of bed on account of the aggravation.

So how can we reduce these intrusions on our focus and productivity?

Implementation intentions

Implementation intentions” are not just a secret weapon for successfully accomplishing goals. They may also be a helpful tool in reducing our mind-wandering and focus problem.

Researchers at Florida State University hypothesized that formulating an implementation intention – a specific plan of when, where, and how one would complete ongoing projects – would help wipe our mental slates clean, and make it easier to focus on the more important task at hand.

The study

73 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to one of three different groups.

One group (the “no-plan” group) was asked to think of two important tasks or errands they needed to complete in the next few days – but for which they hadn’t yet planned out when, where, or how they were going to get them done.

A second group (the “plan” group) was also asked to think of two important ongoing tasks/errands they needed to complete, but unlike the first group, were asked to provide details on exactly when, where, and how they planned to complete these tasks.

A third group (the control group) was simply asked to describe two tasks that they had already completed in the last few days.

Then, all participants were asked to read the first 3200 words of The Case of the Velvet Claws, by Erle Stanley Gardner.

During the reading task, participants were periodically interrupted by, and asked to respond to, a prompt which read: “Prior to the appearance of this screen, was your attention on or off-task?”

After they were done reading, participants rated themselves on (a) how well they we able to focus on the story and (b) to what degree they were distracted by thoughts about the tasks they had written about earlier (1=not at all; 7=very).

They also answered 8 questions about the reading to test their reading comprehension.

The results

With a mean score of 4.61 (1=not at all focused; 7=very focused), the no-plan group struggled to match the focus of the group which took the time to create a specific when/where/how plan before engaging in the reading exercise (mean score=5.56; the difference was statistically significant).

The no-plan group was also more distracted by thoughts related to the tasks hanging over their heads (mean=3.00) than either the group with a plan (mean=1.77) or the control group (mean=1.82). This too was statistically significant.

And on the test for reading comprehension, the no-plan group scored an average of 6.13 (out of 8) questions correct, vs. 6.94 for the plan group and 6.93 for the control group (also statistically significant).

Additional nuggets of goodness

A few additional findings of note:

1. Apparently, simply brainstorming the actions you could take towards completing a task won’t cut it. The plan must be specific (i.e. when, where, and how you will complete the task).

In a follow-up study with 80 undergraduates, one group of participants wrote down the actions they could take, but didn’t commit to any particular one. Another group committed to a specific plan.

When asked to what degree they were still thinking about the task they had yet to complete, the plan group was more focused than the no-plan group (2.14 vs. 3.37, where 1=not at all thinking about the unfinished task and 7=very much thinking about the unfinished task).

2. The researchers also found that in order for an implementation intention to be effective at increasing our focus (and performance) on the task at hand, we must actually have the intention to follow through on the plan. It’s no help to simply make up some random plan that you have no intention of using.

In a study of 97 undergraduates, participants were given a specific strategy for how to complete a task, but only one group specifically committed to using the strategy. This group solved more anagrams (mean=9.55) than the group which didn’t commit to the strategy (mean=6.55), and researchers found that this was true specifically for those who actually followed through on their commitment to utilize the plan they committed to. Those who committed to the strategy but didn’t utilize it failed to experience the same benefits.

Take action

So the next time you find yourself being distracted by unfinished projects bouncing around in your head, free up some cognitive resources by taking a few moments to create a specific plan of when/where/how to complete these tasks – that you actually plan on using.

Additional resources

Want to kick things up a notch? There is a personal productivity system called Getting Things Done (a.k.a. GTD) that actually reflects many of these findings. Conceptually it’s pretty straightforward, but the execution can be a little complex. Then again, as the creator David Allen notes, we have complex lives, and sometimes complex problems require complex solutions.

I’m not a total GTD ninja, but Getting Things Done is one of my favorite books, and there are legions of folks online who have found it liberating and helpful, if not somewhat addicting.

Here’s a great 15-minute quick and dirty summary of GTD: GTD in 15 minutes

And an interesting piece on the “cult” of GTD: Getting Things Done Guru David Allen and His Cult of Hyperefficiency

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17 Responses

  1. When I did a mindfulness meditation course some time ago, the teacher suggested an interesting method of getting rid of these extraneous thoughts. When something popped into our mind he asked us to say mentally ‘Just another thought’ and try to suppress it. It took a while but eventually I was able to keep my mind clear of thoughts and concentrate on the meditation. I haven’t tried it with my practice but will do so now that you reminded me of how it might work.

  2. I’ve come to feel distracting thoughts are my biggest problem with performing. When I’m practicing, I’m in the habit of thinking about all kinds of other things. So I’m not practicing actually focusing on what I’m doing. When I get out on stage and do try to focus, it feels alien. The other things I think about, though, are not “to do” lists but more emotional things, replaying conversations, and so on. Not sure what I can do about that. The previous commenter’s suggestion might be helpful.

  3. This seems to point to the value in designating a (mostly) regular block of time for practice, as for other things. The association of, say, 7 – 10 pm as practice time can become habitual. From experience, handling all the “little stuff” that “needs to be done” before practice can be a real detriment. If a block of time is established for these things, it will also tend to become a habit of association with that time and prove less burdensome on the conscience.

    One other thought: Sometimes it’s not the small “to do” items that can be a mental diversion, but rather big projects that may take days – weeks – months to complete. One can’t simply decide to “get it done at 9:30 tomorrow morning.”

  4. I’m also a fan of a GTD system. So many of us are walking around with hundreds of to-do items floating through the brain. Simply writing them down in a trusted place, where you know they can be easily retrieved, opens up a lot of bandwidth.

    Beyond that, distraction and boredom are more often than not natural symptoms of a poor practice strategy. Mindless repetition spawns a wandering mind.

    Create a spacious, thoughtful practice session on purpose. That, instead of simply stumbling into a random practice routine. Rushed run-throughs of orchestra music exacerbate this type of band-aid approach to your music.

    Then, there are the perfectionists may need to create some downtime to break up those extended practice sessions. “Make a deal” with that part of yourself that’s asking a break by distracting you. Telling it, “I’ll come back and play later” honors a part of your identity that might often be ignored.

  5. I love your blogposts – they are always very informative. I wonder if you would consider posting links to the research you reference? I’d love to read more about the studies. Many thanks for your great work!

      1. I dont usually dive deeper into sources and references. So how do I know who to believe? One key is to look for those willing to post and share the research they are applying. Thanks! The links I HAVE followed have proven to be reliable so my trust of your representation of the findings is pretty good!


  6. Interesting. For me, practicing is the one time when I focus completely on what I’m doing and have no trouble putting other thoughts aside. It’s all-consuming, and that’s one of the reasons I value practicing and performing. I guess I’m lucky.

    I become completely preoccupied with music, but I am much more easily distracted when reading something. I wonder what the results of the study would be if conducted with conservatory students during practice sessions.

  7. Great article, thanks for writing it! Yes I totally agree and believe in the GTD system. In fact, I just completed my third read-through of the book and each time I always find a new insight. As my world is very much in the digital and online spheres, I find EverNote paired with the iPhone apps FastEver and SoundEver make for the perfect tools to help me immediately offload my “open loops” into an “Inbox” so I can give 100% of my mental energies into whatever task I’m currently engaged, practice included of course!

  8. I think everyone at some point will deal with this. I know I have even more over the past year as I juggle a number of projects. Thanks I think I will reference the post to a group I am doing some leadership/Character development with. Also I have marked the book to check out.

  9. I play piano and this happens all the time. When I have an excessive busy day I find singing the melody helps both keeping focus and of course overall in performance.

  10. Our world is complex! Sometimes the ‘Committee’ jumps in with questions and answers and makes focus difficult. I am looking into GTD as a tool to keep things from floating around looking to be resolved.

    There is another scenario that is different. Sometimes my brain hunts for excuses not to focus on something. Resistance to ??? Fear of what?? Even things I clearly want to do and enjoy are undermined by the little voice that says – reading a blog entry and commenting are more urgent than whatever I had planned…

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