How to Avoid Being Distracted From Your Goals

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New research shows that making specific plans creates mental space, allowing us to avoid distraction.

On average each of us has 15 personal projects ongoing at any one time. It might include planning a trip to Europe, spring cleaning the house, getting a new job or any number of other goals.

Plus there’s all the stuff we’re doing right at the moment like working, shopping or reading.

But, to what extent do all these thoughts about goals interfere with one another? Do you get distracted while working on your resume by thinking about your trip to Europe?

Psychologists have known for a century that incomplete goals rattle around in our minds until they’re done. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect.

Specific plans free the mind

The down side is that we can be distracted by incomplete goals while we’re trying to pursue another goal. And according to new research this is precisely what happens unless we have made very specific plans.

In a series of studies researchers found that while trying to enjoy reading a novel (amongst other tasks), participants were frequently interrupted by intrusive thoughts about an unfinished everyday task (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011).

But when researchers told participants to make very specific plans about that unfinished goal, while reading they experienced less intrusive thoughts about the other activity. In fact the intrusive thoughts lessened to the same level as a control group. This finding was repeated in the lab with other activities.

Making plans helps free up mental space for whatever we are doing right now, allowing us to be more efficient in the long term.

Specific goals include the how, what, where and when of whatever we want to achieve. For example if you’re planning a trip you might decided that during a quiet moment in the evening after supper you’ll draw up a list of hotels and flights to discuss with your partner. Then you can book them online on Saturday morning when you’re fresh (make sure, though, that you focus on the process and not the outcome).

If the plan is specific enough, it is automatically activated when the right circumstances arise. The rest of the time our minds should be freer from the other 14 goals that we’re not currently pursuing.

Image credit: Jacob Vance

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 30 September 2011

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License