How can I become less absent minded?
October 16, 2009 5:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I become less absent minded?

I am in the first two months of a competitive doctoral program in which success is determined by subjective evaluations by faculty, which are based on all interactions they have with us. There have been a couple of instances lately that have demonstrated my tendency to be a bit spacey, and I'm concerned that these things keep happening despite my best efforts. I think part of this is that the constant evaluation makes me very self-conscious and anxious. I tend to be a perfectionistic and fairly anxious person anyway, so I'm probably blowing these things out of proportion, but it has been made clear to me that if these things keep happening, I'm in trouble in the program. Otherwise, I'm doing well and making good impressions. How can I make sure that, in my effort to keep track of all the assignments and responsibilities I have, that the obvious, day-to day stuff (like what time my classes start) doesn't get forgotten? Also, how do I calm down about being constantly judged?


-I got distracted by another responsibility and completely forgot to turn in a finished assignment when it was due, and ended up turning it in a day late.

-Today, even though I had been to this 9:30 am student-faculty meeting for the past six weeks, I somehow got it into my head that it started at 10 (that's when I have to be on campus most days). I made an ass of myself by opening the door to the meeting- early, I thought- and closing it right away because I thought I was interrupting an earlier meeting, after the faculty had seen me. I was too embarrassed and worried about being a further disruption to go back in.

-I was late to this same meeting last week because the bus apparently came early, so I missed it and took the next bus.

Any ideas are welcome.
posted by emilyd22222 to Education (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
It's always going to be rough when you are under constant evaluation. The key to mitigating stress about it is to make sure that you bring something to the evaluation that you are proud of/did well. Showing steady improvement in key problem areas is a good place to start. So, how do you get your head back in the game?

First off, slow down. Chances are good that there is nothing going on that is so pressing that you can't take a moment to make sure that aren't forgetting important details. Pause before speaking and don't say anything until you know what you are going to say. Take a moment to double check deadlines and instructions. A corollary to this is to stop multi-tasking. Do one thing at a time - it really makes a huge difference (this is something I'm bad at, so I know). You will actually save time, as constantly switching tasks actually wastes momentum and slows you down.

Write things down - even things you think you know. Take a moment to make a list of everything that's coming up - use a calendar like Google calendar and set up alerts. Remember you're under a lot of pressure, and prepare ahead of time for being distracted.

Finally - always plan on being early to your meetings. Aim for 1/2 hour to 15 minutes early. Being consistently late to meetings is a huge red flag to most supervisors - and it's the easiest thing to avoid.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:51 PM on October 16, 2009

Take Concerta, really.
posted by caddis at 5:58 PM on October 16, 2009

Practical suggestion:

You can set up one time or repeating tasks, and it can email you and or text you a certain amount of time before the due date. I know it won't address the underlying issues, but as far as reminding you to turn in papers and such, you can't beat it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:01 PM on October 16, 2009

Definitely write everything down. I know PDA-type devices are popular, but I've had better luck with a pen-and-paper weekly planners. I write down everything from appointments to "take out the trash" on trash days. Then I have a separate small notepad that I carry around with me. I have one page with things that need to be done TODAY, the next page is things I need to do in a few days, then another list of things that need to get done at some point. Whenever something pops in my head, my notepad is right there, and I make it a point to revisit that notepad throughout the day. I know some people (like my DH) can get by without explicitly writing everything down, but I sure as hell don't know how.
posted by texas_blissful at 6:02 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Making lists has another advantage: it clears the To Do list from your head and frees up space to focus on the things you need to actually be doing. I would have a printed monthly calendar with repeating, regular things like classes, meetings, etc and use RTM for assignments. I think there's even an iPhone app for it now.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:35 PM on October 16, 2009

If you're just starting a program, chances are you may have just put some other things in your life on hold to do it. These things, these other obligations, don't stay in the background - if you've told yourself you have to do it at some point, the mind has a way of bringing back these promises at the most inopportune times. Especially when you're trying to remember other tasks.

One way of putting things out of your mind is to make a more complete list of what's vying for your attention, both now and for the future. Kathy Paauw made a very complete questionnaire designed to help with "downloading the RAM in your brain" as she puts it, and clear up your mind to focus on the present. It's talked about (and linked to) here.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:14 PM on October 16, 2009

Find an organizational method that appeals to you and work it religiously. After 21 days it will become a habit. All of the methods suggested above are good if they suit you. I use my calendar, alarm, to-do, and notes in my cell phone, synched with Google and Outlook, to stay on top of what I need or want to do or keep track of and not rely on keeping it straight in my head. This works great for me. My older daughter prefers a PDA combined with a notebook for longer, more detailed information. My friend makes lists on every piece of paper that crosses her path and keeps a planner style paper calendar. It doesn't really matter which approach you take; it matters that you stick with it until it's habit.
posted by notashroom at 7:20 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing that you need to have one place to keep track of everything--and I do mean everything. Right now I have a small notebook that has sections for work to-do lists, personal to-do lists, shopping list (this is great so that when I'm in some random place and remember I need lightbulbs, I can write it down right away), and for someday stuff (entries include books I want to read, places I want to visit, etc).

The less you have to remember in your brain, the more you can keep things straight. Get a system and keep with it. Writing everything down is absolutely essential for me.

I also use Google Calendar but a paper calendar would work too. But whatever it is, make sure it's always available to you.

I think David Allen of GTD calls the notebook a "capture." You basically need someplace to write down all those stray thoughts. The less in your head, the better.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:38 PM on October 16, 2009

I came up with a really simple and effective system that works for me (and I am very absent minded).

I write things down on a piece of paper, and I keep the piece of paper folded up in my pocket. I also keep a pen or pencil in the same pocket.

I just use a standard sheet of printer paper, nothing fancy. I don't use a book or notepad because it's best that my piece of paper is with me *all the time*.

I write things to do, or things to remember (like numbers, dates, etc.) on the paper. I don't follow a complicated system, I just write things down. In fact I constantly remind myself "there is no system" because I sometimes get paralyzed by wanting to fit things into some kind of scheme.

It works really well for me. Whenever I'm about to go somewhere, I check my paper to see if there's a chore I can combine (like pick up cat food while I'm out or whatever).

I cross todo things off when they're done. I add/modify/scratch out and replace as needed.

About once a week I switch to a new piece of paper. I copy over anything that's still valid, and keep going.

It works *really well* for me. Simple, effective. The only problem I've had is that I've lost my piece of paper a couple of times. That sucked, but wasn't that bad really. I haven't lost one since I switched from having the paper in my back pocket to putting it in my front pocket.

Oh, and one other thing I've done when I've had a lot of stuff going on was I made a todo list in Google Docs (so I could get to it from any computer), then printed out the doc and used it as my "piece of paper". I hand-wrote notes, etc., on the print out. Then at the end of the week I updated the Google Doc and printed it out again. That worked well too.

In summmary:

* Keep a piece of paper on your person, in a pocket where you're unlikely to lose it.
* Write things down on it as needed (addresses, phone numbers, lists, names, todo items)
* Don't stress about a system. Just write things down.
* Check your paper when you're about to embark on a journey, or refer to it as needed.

Works great for me, although I'm aware that it sounds ludicrously simple!
posted by gribbly at 12:36 AM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Find an organizational method that appeals to you and work it religiously.

Agreed, 1000%. I'm a tinkerer by nature, so my version of "finding" the system means creating it myself. But more than finding or creating the system is adhering to it ruthlessly.

I'm also a rules person- I like to create rules for myself so that I'm not constantly barraged with making decisions. So, for example, I was sick and tired of trying to figure out whether or not I should keep phone numbers. So I made a rule for myself that if I got my hands on a number that there is any conceivable notion that I might ever need it again, it goes in the phone. There is almost no cost involved in keeping it, but there is plenty of cost if I do end up needing a number and have to go through the trouble of looking it up again.

Another thing I do is email or txt message myself with don't forget kinds of things.

Where I fall down is in pruning, collating and prioritizing those things. That's the other edge of the organization sword. It has to be workable, and you have to keep up on it, or you won't trust your system, and end up creating overlaying systems to counteract that mistrust. Like, put the car keys in the dish by the door when you get home. If you don't trust yourself to remember to do that, you'll create another rule that says "well, I'm a spacecase and will forget to put the keys in the dish. So I'll go out and make three extra sets of keys and keep them all over the place so I'll never lose them."

The final thing that is key to everything is time management. Not even so much adhering to a clock (which so many of us hate and resent), but adhering to a routine. Like, no matter when I wake up, the first thing I need to do is turn on the computer and check today's tasks and plan my day. All the organization in the world is useless if you fail to use the results of it.

I find that when I'm out of control with things piling up, it seems to add to the stress to purposely ignore some things in order to complete one task. All those other things are screaming for attention. But once I get back in control of my time, the luxury of being able to spend my time concentrating fully on the task at hand without the stress and subconscious distraction (they might be the same thing, now that I think about it) of all those other things is really empowering.
posted by gjc at 5:51 AM on October 17, 2009

Oh, also. Before I splurged and got a Blackberry, a system that worked fairly well for me was the hipster notebook thing. A stack of index cards in the back pocket, clipped together with a binder clip. The only rule for that is not to mix topics on one card, and to try not to spread topics over more than one card. That way, when you are looking for something, you can be fairly certain that when you run across a card with that topic, you've got all the information on that topic that you have. And when your need for that information is over, you can just toss the card. Because you didn't put other information on it.

What I loved about it was that it was almost infinitely customizable. Different colors for different topics, etc. You could even design a miniature form and print the form on them in most printers.

I used to carry one of those little 3x5 spiral notebooks. That worked well, except that I ended up hating it when I ran near the end of the book and ran out of pages. I would then try to "conserve" pages by trying to prioritize what was really important enough to keep in the book, and what was only worth scribbling on the back of an ATM receipt. Maddening.
posted by gjc at 5:58 AM on October 17, 2009

I keep a mini Fisher pen and the smallest moleskine notebook (about 2"x3") on me at all times. I don't stress about the way in which I record stuff, the order it's in, or how pretty it is. The mere act of recording it goes a long way to ensuring I remember. I check it every so often. I keep it in my pocket, and I make a note of running over it when I get up in the morning.

This is my brain dump catcher. I then parcel out stuff (to my gCal, my work calendar, my home to-do list on the fridge, wherever) as circumstances allow.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:43 AM on October 17, 2009

- 2nding the don't multitask - you can spend the whole day working and still not get anything done by multitasking......I know that because I frequently get to 4pm and have not done any of the things I wanted to do that day!

- use a notebook/diary system of some kind and stick with it - for me that means that everything including all manner of trivial stuff goes in my work diary because that's the computer I spend most time on and chances are that I will forget anything that doesn't make it into my diary...that includes all matter of personal things such as birthdays, meals, dentist, when the shopping is delivered or when to pay a bill...also consider that you may need more than one entry around the same task if you need to be doing things ahead of time so you could have reminders to buy a ticket, book a table, make an appointment, buy a birthday card or pick up the dry cleaning or whatever it may be...

- spend a few minutes every evening compiling a to do list for the next day - you've stopped working for that day so can slow down and take a few minutes to think about your schedule for the next day, ensure you know where you have to be and when and what you are going to do

- if you remember to do something in the evening that will help you the next day do it - be it doing your lunch for the next day or packing your bag or even to fill up the car on the way home even if you're tired and it's cold...chances are you'll oversleep the next morning, you'll still need to fill up the car because you can't make the commute on fumes and as you're running late you won't stop for breakfast, pack a lunch and will forget to put the one key item you need that day in your bag as you rush out of the door....not that that has ever happened to me of course!
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:47 AM on October 17, 2009

Adderall. Or ritalin or concerta or whatever. You're obviously motivated and bright, forgetting to go to class on time sounds like classic ADD.
posted by kathrineg at 9:08 PM on October 17, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice, everyone. To be clear, I typically don't forget major things (unless I get distracted)- it's more the minor, obvious, day-to-day things that I forget. I'm already using Google Calendar and Remember the Milk. I also keep a running list of priorities in my notebook for when I don't have internet access.

Now, all I have to figure out how to explain what happened with the meeting to faculty if they bring it up. It's not that I'm disorganized or irresponsible- I just keep spacing on stuff. Ugh.
posted by emilyd22222 at 9:43 PM on October 17, 2009

Always try to be early to everything. Hate lateness with your whole being, and never tolerate yourself for being late to anything for any reason. I guarantee that if you knew you were going to be given a million dollars at the meeting and that you would lose the money if you were late, you would have....ta-da....been there on time. Like magic. People who are successful and responsible will excuse many more sins before they excuse lateness because lateness does not fit into a world of success. The next time, be amongst the first in the room and bring work to do while you wait for everyone to arrive. It will look kick ass if you are typing, or grading papers, or whatever as everyone notices you when they walk in. Be this person. NOT the person who walks in late to everything.

How to handle goofs like the embarrassment situation: Don't look back. Move forward and put negative gaffes on your part out of your mind. Focusing on mistakes of the past is crippling. Most of the time, the people whom you are so worried might view you in a bad light have forgotten the issue or it is much more mild in their minds than you think. Just change your habits and they will view you in a new light. People have generally short memories about minor mistakes like walking in the room late and they will forget it soon. Also, if you start on a better path, someone else will always take your place as the slacker of the group. That is a promise. And as soon as this happens, all eyes will be off of you and onto them. Then you are free. Best of luck.
posted by boots77 at 1:46 AM on October 18, 2009

Response by poster: Another clarification- I am not chronically late, and don't have a lateness problem. I am known for being the first person at every meeting. I am typically 30 minutes early for everything. I was at the meeting 25 minutes than the time for which I thought the meeting was scheduled, but I had the wrong time in my head.
posted by emilyd22222 at 12:29 PM on October 18, 2009

Okay, I hope this doesn't come off as pushy, but you sound like you have a lot of problems that are common to people with ADHD. If you get a chance, maybe a screening for it would be helpful.
posted by kathrineg at 1:48 PM on October 18, 2009

The three examples that you supplied were all examples of lateness. You turned in an assignment late. You missed a meeting one week. You missed a meeting another week. You present yourself as a person who is chronically late. This may be a symptom of other larger issues, but nonetheless, no one in the professional world really cares why you are late...just that you are. So it is with their eyes that I am approaching this. If you really want to change, own it first.
posted by boots77 at 4:14 PM on October 18, 2009

I was too embarrassed and worried about being a further disruption to go back in.

This is... not good. You're going to make mistakes, and you just have to deal with them. It's one thing to be late, it's another thing to be late, poke your head in, and then leave.
posted by smackfu at 12:36 PM on October 19, 2009

Response by poster: Boots77- I see your point. I guess I meant that I'm not one of those people who is 3 minutes late for everything and can't seem to get themselves out of the house. I HATE lateness. Thanks for pointing that out.

Smackfu- I know I fucked up. You really don't need to make me feel worse about this than I already do. I mean, seriously?
posted by emilyd22222 at 6:39 PM on October 19, 2009

Sorry. I wasn't trying to make you feel worse. That line just really stuck out.
posted by smackfu at 7:22 PM on October 19, 2009

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