What does a parking lot have to do with organizing? Seemingly nothing, but, plenty. A world of pings and rings distracts us from our intended tasks. Let us not forget that incessant internal clatter, either. It is a miracle that we get anything done with all the noise.
For those with ADHD, it is even more challenging to ignore those pings, rings, and internal noise than for a neurotypical individual. According to what I have read online and in various books, we only have four “working memory” slots. Working memory is the section of our brain where we temporarily store information while we work with other information.
For instance, to mentally add two large numbers, we must remember the first number, the second number, and also do the addition. I am grossly oversimplifying the concept, but the gist is that we do not have infinite working memory slots to hold multiple thoughts simultaneously. If we happen to pick up a ringing phone as we add those two numbers, the visual process and resulting thought could boot out one of the two numbers. Now you only remember the last number and the new thought. Goodbye, first number; back to the drawing board.
Those with ADHD face a more considerable challenge with working memory. The same goes for aging neurotypicals. So, what are we to do if we have important tasks to complete, yet we repeatedly pull ourselves off-task, regardless of our best intentions? We can turn on our phones’ Do Not Disturb or Airplane Mode. We can mute audible or visual cues that alert us of unread emails.
What about all those competing thoughts that pop up during every waking hour? I have read varying statistics stating we have anywhere from 6,200 to 10,000 thoughts on any given day. That is a lot of distraction deterring us from essential tasks!
So how can we give ourselves a fighting chance of staying focused? We can use a “parking lot.” Years ago, I was in a multi-departmental meeting. There were complex issues to discuss, so naturally, many offshoots grew from the main discussion. I learned a great tactic in that meeting.
The facilitator set up a large Post-It easel pad and labeled it “parking lot.” Anytime someone had a related question, concern, or idea that was not on the agenda, we wrote it on the “parking lot” so we did not forget it but could avoid going off-track. Someone later added the parking lot ideas to the next meeting’s agenda or captured it elsewhere to be addressed at a later date.
At the time, I found it to be a novel concept. It can truly be helpful and you do not have to spend money to use this tool. Your parking lot could come in various forms:
You might notice that I did not include loose scraps of paper. Sometimes we do not have a choice, but I prefer getting ideas onto or into something that is not easily lost.
When working at my computer, I enjoy using a dry-erase board. The board sits within arm’s reach so I can quickly capture the thought instead of impulsively going off-task. As a competing idea pops into consciousness, such as returning a text message, I write, “return Sarah’s text,” on my board instead of halting progress to text her right then and there.
It can be a boon for getting things done when combined with a timer and Pomodoro sessions.
For the Pomodoro, I set my timer for twenty-five or fifty minutes. When the timer rings, I take a short break. I can stretch, move around, and spend a few minutes attending to those other tasks or scheduling them into my calendar or digital task list. After my break, I can sit down for another focused Pomodoro session.
I enjoy my dry-erase board because it has limited space to write. I force myself to calendar or input the task into my app then because I need a fresh slate to write down new ideas that inevitably pop up as I start my next Pomodoro. Additionally, I can avoid dealing with a daunting list of tasks to address at the end of the day when I am already tired.
The biggest drawback to this tool is that it is too bulky to use on the go. So, one could employ a daily planner, so long as it contains blank space to write the ideas before they leave the working memory slot.
We can use paper pads too. The benefit is that we can quickly capture the thought before it is forgotten. Its Achilles’ heel is that ripped-off papers might add more bulk to an existing pile of clutter.
A digital planner or task app can work too. The benefit is that many of us typically have cell phones within arm’s reach, but for me personally, it has a significant drawback. As I age, I notice that fleeting thoughts flee my consciousness much faster than they used to, so I have to get the idea out of my head quickly. A lot could distract me on the way to getting the task into the app, thus knocking the thought out of my working memory until it randomly pops up again later on, usually at the wrong time to address it. To enter the task before the idea evaporates into thin air, I have to:
At any given time during these steps, another thought could race in and knock out the idea I wanted to remember. I am left holding my phone, ready to type, and frustratingly racking my brain for the thought that disappeared into the ether. So, rather than forcing myself to jump through those hoops, I skip the steps by more quickly grabbing my pen and dry-erase board. When I take a break, I schedule any tasks or add them to my digital task app.
You can use digital voice assistants too. For instance, if you are working and remember that you need to buy milk tonight, you could launch Google Assistant on your digital device by saying, “OK, Google,” and then, “Remind me to get milk tonight at 7 pm.” The reminder will ring at the appropriate time instead of ruining your focus when you cannot go to the store.
Whichever tool you use, a “parking lot” for dumping distracting thoughts can help keep us on track. We can then avoid the dreaded, “It’s 4 pm already! How did that happen? I was supposed to be done, but I just sat down and got started!” Getting those competing thoughts out of your working memory and into a receptacle outside of your memory gives you a fighting chance to get things done that truly matter.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.