How to Get Organized and Stay Focused in a Modern World

How to Get Organized and Stay Focused in the Modern World FinalGetting organized used to be a whole lot easier.

As nomadic hunter-gatherers, we only had to keep track of the things we could carry because that was all we owned. As members of a tribe of extended family members, we could lean upon others for assistance with day-to-day tasks and trust they had equal skin in the game. We didn’t have to shoulder everything ourselves, and the responsibilities necessary for survival were simpler. The accessible world was much smaller, the breadth of available knowledge limited by location. You knew all about the lives and goings-on of your immediate community members and which plants were edible in a 20-mile radius and where to get water and when the antelope grazed and the leopard prowled. But what happened 50 miles away was a total mystery, and a thousand miles away might well have been infinitely vast. Important info was recorded through oral traditions—stories and songs. Anecdote and analogy and parable carry weight to this day because for millennia, they were all we had to go on.

Then agriculture happened, followed by urbanization and markets and trade routes and, suddenly, we had a lot more information to process. So we created a system for organizing and externalizing information: writing. Physical writing soon gave way to telecommunication traveling along physical wires and, later, invisible data streams shooting and bouncing across the atmosphere.

Today, we are roving islands of responsibilities, duties, obligations, tasks, schedules, and information hyperconsumers. We have more “freedom” and everything’s amazing and there’s an app for that and that and that. But that just means we have more things to squeeze in and organize our lives around. It used to be if you wanted to go to Hawaii, you told a travel agent and they booked the plane, the hotel, and the rental car. Now we have the freedom to hunt for the best deal ourselves and travel-hack our way into credit rewards for extra miles and scour AirBNB for an amazing pad on the beach. There are benefits, clearly. We have more opportunities and more options, but we’re busier than ever before with fewer people to help shoulder the load. And unless you turn off notifications, your phone’s always alerting you to the existence of something else to cram into your brain.

That’s the rub: on top of the physical world we’ve laid an entirely novel world of digital information that demands even more of our attention. All those tweets, status updates, texts, emails, and snapchats need to be organized alongside our houses, spouses, closets, jobs, bills, cars, and yards. How can our pre-industrial brains stay organized and focus on the things that matter? Here are a few tips to help.

Don’t multitask

You’re answering emails. You’re checking your phone. You’re pinging colleagues. You’re working an Excel spreadsheet. You’re reading MDA. You’re bouncing around from website to app to Twitter feed to phone call to text message. You’re on top the world and optimizing your performance. After all, doing three tasks at once instead of one must be more efficient. Right? Or maybe not, since the evidence clearly shows that multitasking doesn’t work very well.

A 2009 study out of Stanford found that heavy multitaskers—people who reported being frequent multitaskers and felt they were more efficient because of it—were worse at multitasking than people who reported being light multitaskers. When the multitaskers actually tried to multitask, they had trouble switching from task to task, were more easily distracted, and had trouble organizing their thoughts. In a more recent study, performance on a single task was 83%, while trying to do two tasks at once dropped performance to 17%.  Multitasking is a lie. Unless the tasks are completely automatic, like breathing and walking, performance of the primary task suffers.

If you insist on multitasking, try passive multitasking, like starting a pot of bone broth or a pot roast in the slow cooker before work. Dinner will be cooking as you work without you having to do any extra work. I also find that integrating exercise into the workday improves my ability to focus and create without disrupting my work flow. This could mean using a treadmill desk, keeping a kettlebell at your desk for occasional sets of swings, or taking pushup/squat breaks every 3o minutes. At home, I usually hop on the slack line for a few minutes when my writing hits a lull.

Take stock of your digital sensory organs

Phones, apps, and social media are sensory organs for our extended digital brains. They provide streams of data and information, and this information either helps or hinders us. Unfortunately, our brain can’t really distinguish between useful and useless information before we see it; it all gets processed simply by virtue of our viewing it, taking up valuable brain resources in the process.

On a free day, take the time to sit down and analyze the data streams in your life. Go through your Twitter feed and survey your “followed” list. Are the accounts you follow making you happy, improving your life, inspiring you, or making you money? Stop following the ones who you answer “no” to. Now do the same for the apps on your phone. If they aren’t improving your existence or are sucking your time away without anything to show for it, delete them. Do this for every digital outlet you maintain.

Avoid anger porn

Between liberals rage-watching Fox News, conservatives gnashing teeth over Obama dancing tango in Cuba, and anyone with a pulse reading Youtube comment sections, people are drawn to opinions and news that enrage them. I call this anger porn, and I’m not sure why we insist on consuming it. At least with regular porn, there’s a pay-off. With anger porn, we just get angry and frustrated. We can’t affect the world events being reported on. We can’t change that other guy’s disgusting opinion (nor can he change your horrendous one); we can reply to comments, but that just turns into a flame war without victors.

Anger consumes you. It depletes you. It’s a huge waste of time and attention.

Take notes

Our memories are fluid—more written in sand than etched in stone. Even our recollections of significant events morph over time until we’re not even sure we’re remembering them correctly. And sometimes they just disappear. How many times have you had a great idea, think “I should write this down,” don’t, and forget all about it? You’d never know because you’ve forgotten all about it!

Keep a notepad handy or download an app like Evernote for your phone. I don’t use Evernote myself, instead preferring to jot stuff down on paper or in my phone’s default notepad, but I’ve got friends and colleagues who swear by it.

Remove temptations

Humans are voracious data hounds. We just love information snacks, little bits of news and gossip that flit across our brains and prevent us from doing what we know we should be doing. And willpower is cool and all, and it’s easy to tell someone “just don’t visit that website,” but in reality? You’re gonna slip up and give in. Don’t rely on willpower. Use one or some of the dozens of tools and apps that block distractions. I’m a big fan of Self Control, which lets you choose which websites to “blacklist,” and for how long. Once a site is blacklisted, you won’t be able to access it for up to 24 hours. Delete it, restart the computer, it’s all in vain. Any and all attempts to bypass the blacklist will fail. For PC and smartphones, Freedom is a similar app.

Say “HELL YEAH” or “no”

Time and attention are finite. We only have so much, and it’s all we have in this life. After that, it’s gone. If we reject this fundamental truth and attempt to take on more tasks than we can complete, we’ll have no time for any of the stuff we care about and our lives will descend into stressed-out ruin. Derek Sivers has an ingenious way of deciding how to allocate his time and energy. If a potential opportunity doesn’t excite him, he doesn’t take it. If it “sounds kinda cool,” that’s not good enough. He’ll only agree to things if they make him say “hell yeah!”

Let your mind wander

Mind wandering is our natural state: where we aren’t engaged and focused on a task, we daydream. And it’s not frivolous. It’s essential. This is when our brain recharges and we stumble upon new avenues of thought. Next time you’re in line at the DMV or strolling along the beach at sunset, resist the urge to pull out your phone and occupy your mind. Let it wander. You need the break.

Don’t respect arbitrary commitments and rules

We all have to pay taxes and die someday. Beyond that, rules descend into varying degrees of arbitrariness. Self-imposed rules are the most arbitrary, like finishing every book you start. What if the book is terrible?

If the book doesn’t grab you in the first 40 pages, stop reading it. This isn’t school. You don’t have to suffer through boring (im)material.

If you “want” to meditate every morning for 20 minutes but can’t seem to do it, stop beating yourself up. You don’t want to meditate, actually, or else you would. That’s okay. There are alternatives. Worrying about not meditating is worse than not meditating.

Avoid decision fatigue

I’ve written on decision fatigue before. It’s a pernicious first-world problem that can sap us of willpower and resolve to do the tasks that matter. Read the post and consider what it says.

Consciously focus

I don’t care what the task is. Entertainment, writing copy, doing spreadsheets, TPS reports, welding, dog walking. Just focus. You could be watching the Walking Dead; actually watch it. Don’t have your phone out. Give yourself fully to the task at hand.

Tidy up

You’ve heard about the rich and measurable benefits of reducing wanton consumption and getting rid of unwanted, unused items cluttering your home. There’s less to worry about, it’s easier to keep clean, you’re more mobile when you don’t have lug hundreds of heavy boxes around, and you spend less money. And as far as organization goes, tidying offers obvious benefits; you actually know where things are kept! But there’s even evidence that your physical space mirrors your mental space and makes it easier to organize your thoughts and complete tasks. Research shows that trying to complete a task in a messy environment is harder than completing it in a clean, neat one. Physical clutter literally inhibits the brain’s ability to focus, process information, and avoid distractions.

Rank your to-do list

Get all your  to-do lists out. First, throw out the items that aren’t really important. If they ever become important, they’ll resurface later.

Next, separate them into two groups: big jobs and easy jobs. A big job is something that takes planning, time, devotion, and probably money. An easy job is something you can crank out in an afternoon.

Then, rank each item in each group in order of importance.

Finally, start cranking them out. Go down the line of easy jobs and do them as quickly as you can. Go down the list of big jobs and take the first step to actually start.  Never have more than two (one from each list) going at once.

There are of course times where you might have multiple things going on. That’s fine. Using the to-do rankings helps you focus, though. It’s a good rubric for getting things done, far superior to a big floating list of things you kinda have to do, sometime, somewhere.

Realize that “bits” count, too

Allowing large items and responsibilities to pile up is an obvious impediment to organization. Remodeling that bathroom, painting that kitchen, applying to that job, and deciding what you’re going to do about school for your toddler weigh heavily. We acknowledge as such. Everyone does. But what about digital “bits,” like unanswered emails and articles you’ve bookmarked to read later but never do? Because they’re digital, we tend to discount their effect on our focus, but they occupy real space in our lives.

Because our brains are set up to deal with physical things, and the impact of the digital realm isn’t obvious, a big part of getting organized and focused in the modern world is recognizing and acknowledging the obstacles. Now, it may take months or years for this to become second nature. It may be a constant battle. And perhaps several generations down the line, when human biology interfaces directly with tech, we’ll have adapted. Not yet, though.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, and I’d love to hear how you stay organized and focused amidst all the distractions and temptations. What tips would you add?

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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37 thoughts on “How to Get Organized and Stay Focused in a Modern World”

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  1. I. Love. These. Tips! I definitely notice the “tidy up” tip works for me. Cluttered home, cluttered thoughts.

  2. I wish I could do more of the “hell yeah” or “no” in my life. Sometimes I decide to take an opportunity, even if it’s not a “hell yeah,” simply because I want a new experience. It’s worked out in my favor sometimes, but in others…not so much. Maybe there’s a higher reasonable voice that can discern well between what would be a good new opportunity to take (despite natural hesitation/fear) and what’s not.

    1. Cannot recall where I heard this: “Opportunities are like a bus, another will be arriving”. The context was viewing opportunity as an abundance instead of the popular view of being a scarcity.

  3. Without some form of note taking I don’t think I could survive in my work, home, or social life. There’s too much to remember. So I make sure to take a note/prepare a reminder immediately after I plan a task. Otherwise, it’ll go off into the ether, never to be heard or thought of again!

  4. Multitasking is just another way of saying, “Start one thing quickly while pausing another, then switching back.” Like you said, Mark, it’s not a walk-and-chew-gum kind of thing. The best form of multi-tasking is, again like you said, doing laundry while you make dinner, etc. I’ve never been able to “multi-task” in any other effective way.

  5. Making a ranking to-do list has definitely helped me out–especially when I’m trying to plan something with more complexity. Otherwise, I just get overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.

  6. Great post, Mark! I think we all need a little extra practical glue to keep our heads on straight.

  7. “Anger porn”: great term! I definitely think there’s a place for constructive discourse. But that’s a tiny fraction of the kind we typically see in politics anymore. I hope people start to burn out and it ushers in a friendlier, more civil atmosphere for discussion. I bet a lot more would get done (with a lot fewer heart palpitations).

  8. Needed this post today.

    “If the book doesn’t grab you in the first 40 pages, stop reading it. This isn’t school.” Love this! So many times I find myself doing things just because I think I ‘should’, not because I want or need to.

  9. Love this post! Sometimes I wonder where my day went and realize it was filled up with distractions and interruptions, many of them passive. I like the idea of passive multi-tasking, and I definitely use the trick of sneaking some exercise in throughout the day. Two other things that help me stay focused are to have my morning quiet time (prayer/breathing/reading) every single day. Before I get email, FB, etc. I also like to set alarms on my phone to go off throughout the day with positive affirmations. This makes me stop for a moment, consider the words, and breathe. One of the things I love most about MDA is that it’s not just food and workouts!

  10. I use the note app on my phone for lists or information I’ll need to find later however when it comes to my To Do lists, I notice that I’m far more likely to get things done if I write them by hand. I might be a total techie in most ways but my physical Franklin Covey planner is far more effective for me than digital task lists and typed notes.

    I also can’t recommend enough the value of having an unplugged vacation. Every year I vacation for a week at a place by a lake with no Wi-Fi, very poor cell service, no TVs and no phones in the cabins. I come back more refreshed than any other type of vacation. It’s so hard to voluntarily unplug yourself because that wears on your willpower but when you go somewhere that forces you to unplug, temptation is not an issue and you can truly relax.

  11. I multitask when I’m cooking. I’m a long-time member of the clean-up-as-you-go school of food preparation because I hate finishing a meal and having to face a kitchen that’s a clutter of cooking tools and ingredients that need to be put away. I prefer to give most other tasks my undivided attention whenever I can.

  12. Mark, definitely one of your best posts!

    I “consciously focus” my office wardrobe into separate outfits, such as one skirt with 2-3 matching tops. If an article of clothing is an orphan, I stash it in the car and keep taking it into the stores until I find it a match. No strays. You are either HELL-YEAH in my closet as part of an outfit, or you are gone. I’ve had to be ruthless, but it really tidies up the closet.

    In contrast, all of my workout clothes are plain grey, white, and black. Womens’ workout wear is the scam version of Garanimals. Forget buying “just” the sports bra. All the pieces are trimmed with subtly different shades of pastel that will never match the clothes in another store, or even from the same store six months from now. So I just get plain white/gray/black so that it’s effectively all one outfit.

    Secondly, a (annoying, sorry) suggestion for the declutterers: this can be a safety issue beyond losing your cars keys for the hundredth time. Please ask yourself this: If some emergency came up and you had 15 minutes to leave the house and never come back, what do you grab and where is it? Smart phone/laptop, credit cards, financial and personal papers (birth certificates etc), medications, jewelry, small expensive electronics, and truly sentimental items. You don’t have to declutter your house into minimalism, but find all the important stuff and put it one easy-to-access place and keep it there. You don’t have time to fish around for things if a mudslide or a tornado is aimed at your house.

    1. Fifteen minutes to leave the house in an emergency? In some instances, such as a fire, you might be lucky if you have half that much time. Grab the kids and the pets and LEAVE. The rest is just stuff. Valuables that really can’t be replaced–and there are darn few–probably belong in a safe deposit box.

  13. I am hyper-organized naturally and it sometimes drives the people around me crazy but I love it. I agree that your environment is a match to your internal state, so by changing my environment – clean, organize, take away clutter – it really helps center me, sets a foundation for being productive and enjoy the experience with a clean mental focus.

  14. TPS reports HAHAHA… Ah Mark, you are awesome! I love working on techniques to increase productivity!

  15. Oh, so glad you put “Don’t multitask” at the top of the list! For me, this is Number 1 (along with its corollary–being truly present for whatever I’m doing right now).

    I find keeping my belongings simple and my spaces clear and organized is also key to overall well-being and creativity.

    And for to-do lists and documents, I find Evernote helpful–keeping that very simple and tidied up as well.

  16. I ask myself “is this important?” a lot more often now. It really helps organize my life and my priorities from what shirts to keep to what career goals to pursue. “Is this commemorative shirt I never wear important enough to lug around for the rest of my life?” “Is this TPS report really going to move the needle on my career?” “Is blogging every day critical to my success as a coach?”
    Some might be yes, others are no but it helps me let some things go rather than feel guilty about not getting everything on my plate done. I just have to say “no” to some things to say “yes” to others.

    I really wish I was more disciplined with writing notes though! So many great recipes lost! That’s definitely something I’ll keep saying yes to until I get in the habit.

  17. I’m in the middle of my big yearly weed out: I open every cupboard, drawer, and closet–all the storage nooks and crannies–and ask if I believe the contents to be beautiful or know them to be useful. If it doesn’t pass that test, then I try to think of someone who could use the item.

  18. I often get annoyed when people around me cannot multi-task. Cooking dinner while folding laundry and keeping up with the kids (at least keeping an ear out that no one is hurting another!) is kind of the norm. I often tease that my poor daughter has to eat breakfast while brushing her teeth and having her hair combed and getting dressed in order for us to make it to school (mostly) on time! We also know that we prioritize sleep over getting up early to have leisure time, but some days it sure feels like we’re booting everyone out the door in a whirlwind! Only having 8 minutes to get to school makes for a good sprint though. 🙂 I think I’ve forgotten how to only do one thing at a time while parenting. I also need order in order to think, and it’s amazing how fast a family can disrupt the “stuff” in our environment enough to make me feel slightly off-kilter. A backpack here, lunch box there, sweater tossed on the floor–Yikes! Try as I might training them isn’t working very well! Good post though. I always like new incentives to get a bit more organized and excuses to get rid of even more stuff!

  19. Hi Mark, I just want to point out that hunter gatherers would cache their hunting tools made of stone instead of schlepping them around. Several such 13,000+ year old caches have been found here in Colorado. One near here is called the Mahaffey Cache. So they had to remember where they cached them. I guess they forgot these, or something happened to the hunters.

  20. Every one of Mark’s posts are great but this one is particularly good. I love the “anger porn” concept, something I get trapped in as I am a big sports fan and a political junkie … ouch.

    Multi-tasking … a computer can work on one task, go to the next, back to the first task, switching in a nanosecond, our brains are not wired to do that. A computer process can even go further than that, with multi threading where multiple tasks are really being done simultaneously.

    Years ago I had an IT manager complain that I was not multi-tasking enough. A month later he called me into his office and apologized. He said I was the only one on the teams whose programs ran bug free in production from inception, the other developers had to go through another cycle or two of development. I learned then that doing one big project at a time, then going on to the next (taking some time to pre-stage the next task to eliminate down time) was the way to go for me.

  21. I don’t multitask, I do one thing at a time. But my one thing might be put a soup to simmering on the stove, carry the trash out to the quonset, grab the rake and do five minutes getting the gravel back onto the driveway, then return the rake to the quonset, grab the window squeegee while I’m there and carry it back to the house, stir the soup, fold a few clothes, stir the soup, put the clothes away, fill a bucket and squeegee one window, check the time, drop the squeegee and bucket at the next window in line for tomorrow, and go inside for some soup.

    I find if I keep my mind pointed directly and firmly on that one thing I get a LOT more done, and done very peacefully.

  22. While I agree with the concerns about such things as multi-tasking — our brains simply aren’t wired to cope with numerous tasks at once — I wouldn’t get too hung up on worrying about decision fatigue. Much of that notion arises out of research on “ego-depletion,” which may soon become infamous as one of the most oversold ideas in the history of psychology. A recent intensive effort to replicate one of the most basic findings has failed miserably, calling the whole field of research into question.

    Also, despite what the article says, this outcome isn’t at all a surprise to many psychologists. Apart from plenty of contradictory findings — e.g., ego-depletion effects often largely depend on whether you believe in ego-depletion — it simply makes no sense for people (like Grok) to have evolved in such a way as to be so fragile that a mere decision can undermine his or her ability to self-regulate.

    Given the frequency with which the notion of ego-depletion is bandied about on the web, especially on sites like this, it would I think be a real service to readers if Daily Apple were to do a post on this controversy.

  23. I really like the “let the mind wander” suggestion. Sometimes the best thoughts are the ones least planned.

  24. And again, this is why I keep coming back to this blog.
    It really is about intentional living.
    People might be drawn to paleo because they want abs, but you stay because primal living is about so so so much more.

  25. Attempting to multi-task and distraction while working are two of my biggest struggles right now. I have a high stress job but get to work from home, which is fabulous but I have to rely on myself 100% to stay focused. I think it’s become a full-blown addiction, actually. I keep telling myself ‘don’t check email every 5 minutes just because you’re bored of the item you’re working on’ – and then my brain will say ‘ok, except for right now – click!’ I like the app Self Control, and it works if I use it, but it’s even hard to get the Self Control to launch Self Control, lol. 🙂 I can’t work offline because of the nature of my job, but with kitty videos one click away I feel like a sugar addict sitting right next to a huge chocolate cake all day. At the end of the day I’m exhausted from trying and failing over and over again.
    Thank goodness they hadn’t invented the internet in its current form when I was college or I never would have made it!

  26. I have started to value the idea of unplugging as well. I found myself staring at my phone ALL the time, whether to read or do a word puzzle or just surf the net aimlessly. I decided to go back to a hobby I had started to cultivate years back but never really got into. I am now doing my first rug hooking project, and I love sitting for an hour at night listening to music and focusing on a pile of wool and a rug hook rather than a screen. I find myself looking forward to that time all during the day now, and I have something where I can feel productive and creative and actually see progress each day.

    It’s also interesting that when I look for blogs and events for this craft, there are very few ‘younger’ people involved in this. It’s a few people my age (mid 40-s) and mostly ladies I’m guessing about 10 years older than me and beyond. Probably mostly people who were older by the time the smartphone revolution had started, and never got addicted to having a phone in their hands all the time!

  27. Nice comment on the anger porn,
    I think we, or some of us are drawn to this type of entertainment because it raises our emotions, in this case cortisol (I’m thinking) and with daily input it becomes a addictive activity that can turn into a health problem.

    During the last 3 elections my favorite motto has been “Skip all the mud slinging, take a vacation”. Of course I work in the travel industry, so I look for any reason to take a vaca.

  28. Hell yeah! I strive for this way of thinking. Also I use easy to use tools. E-meals has a Paleo plan. with the app I can save 3-4 meals a week to my favorites with a grocery list and recipe! I am not trying to Impress anyone with my lifestyle. I live it for me and my health. I really appreciate Mark’s daily apple for being real in a sea full of how hard can I make this blogs and websites in the Paleo and primal world. In fact it’s the only one I follow anymore. I appreciate the self-determination apparent in your work. This leads to a decrease in stress every time. I decide what’s important in my life, not the media, not my neighbors, I’m responsible for me.

  29. One of the most sensible posts I’ve ever read. Ever.
    Perhaps that’s because all of the points highlight my weaknesses – administrational and organisational tasks.
    Thanks for such brilliant and well explained tips.
    I already feel more organised for having simply read this post.

  30. Great post. We all need to be more focused in our lives. The more we pay attention to the things we need to work on in our lives, the less time we will have to waste on small and stupid things.

    In my experience, visualization of your goals and yoga are also great in helping you stay focused and organized.

  31. Everything’s not amazing. Life has been and always will be hell. I was happiest when homeless and alone. I should have never left; biggest mistake of my life. Technology is a prison that only the weak thrive in.