Monkey Mind and Cheese Puffs

June 13, 2011

Getting distracted and getting stuff done in your home office


Your brain is a busy, busy place. You try to concentrate on your work — doing that marketing stuff or that article or balancing your books — but you “come to” an hour later on Facebook, looking at your childhood best friend’s baby photos.

Ahh, yes. We all do it. We’d like to be perpetually productive and professional, but our creative minds don’t willingly take on that yoke. Although you are a grown adult, you have a distractable three-year-old inside your brain throwing tantrums, picking daisies, and — ooh! What’s that over there? A raven mind that’s drawn to on shiny objects. The Buddhists call it monkey-mind.

Whatever you call it, despite knowing all the things you’re supposed to do in business, something else takes over. Regularly.

Distraction happens

As I type this, there’s an American Robin sitting in a tree close to my window, singing full tilt boogie. He’s so near, I can see his bright yellow beak opening and his body expanding with each burst of song. It’s all I can do to not watch him for the next 20 minutes instead of write this.

Full disclosure: I started this article two weeks ago and have been in compulsive Twitter-checking mode since. Hmm…

So whether your distraction is caused by long-term stress or a hard-wired condition like ADHD, it happens. Our brains are not machines. They’re not meant to be “on” constantly.

Your mind wants to gobble up cheese puffs

When your mind’s distractable, anything that’s visual and easy to consume is like a bag of cheese puffs for your brain. When I’m in a brain-snacky kind of mood, I’ll click on just about any link that crosses my path. My brain snackage includes Facebook, Twitter, email,, and cake decorating videos on YouTube. It’s true.

There are alternatives to letting distraction drive you (and those who love you) nuts. Here are a few:

Five ideas for shifting distraction

1. The power of a pause

If you notice yourself doing these cheese-puffy activities in the moment, pause. Don’t berate yourself. Just stop and gently ask yourself what you need.

Very often we chomp on brain snacks because we’re tired, overwhelmed, or feel uncertain about how to begin something big. Very often, I find myself online when I need a break.

So I stop and ask, “Is this what I want to do right now? Is this activity nourishing me? What do I need?” Asking these questions can invite curiosity and help you redirect your attention in a positive, respectful way.

2. Let ‘er rip

It’s important to recognize that having a distractable mind isn’t a bad thing. You’re not lazy or lacking in discipline. You’re creative. You’re curious. Your mind is naturally wired for discovery and insight!

When you have these gifts, you can honor them by allowing time for them. You might still nibble on mental cheese puffs occasionally, but I invite you to be curious about what you’re longing to explore. And then do it!

Instead of obsessively watching cake decorating videos on YouTube, I signed up for a month-long fondant decorating class. It was so much more fun and engaging (and delicious) to practice this new skill than watching any video! What do you find fascinating? Make a date with it. Indulge it. Have fun!

3. Try something other than force

Have you ever noticed yourself using force to focus on and complete something? Sometimes force is effective. Sometimes, no matter how much you force, your work starts to drag to a snail’s pace. Instead of strenuously pushing pushing pushing to get something done, give your brain some down time.

Give yourself an on-purpose distraction. Do something different. Get up, move around, get the mail, stretch, put some stuff in the recycle bin. Just get away from the project for a few minutes and see what happens.

4. Write for clarity

When I’m super-distracted, I grab a blank sheet of paper and a purple pen, sit on the floor (away from my desk), and write down everything I’m trying to hold in my head.

Writing things by hand is a powerfully integrative activity. It only takes a few minutes to get it all down on paper — and it feels like setting down a 10lb bag of cheese puffs. Get it all out of your head. Suddenly you feel lighter and clearer.

In Office Spa Day, I encourage folks to do this kind of brainstorming. Once you’ve offloaded the list onto paper, I invite you to choose the one easiest, funnest, most do-able thing on the list. When you start doing that one thing, overwhelm turns into focus and motivation. It’s amazingly simple and so effective!

5. Practice slowing down

Sometimes distractibility is a sign that you’ve been busy and you expect to be busy for-basically-ever. It’s not fun, and lack of focus is a symptom of a life out of balance. Slowing down can help.

Some people rightfully resist the idea of slowing down because it seems counter-productive. How does slowing down get through the to-do list? Some are afraid if they slow down, they’ll never start back up again. As I mentioned, your brain can’t go-go-go constantly without compromising functionality.

The beauty of slowing down is contrast. When you take a break from the Internet for a weekend or afternoon, or when you sit and read a book instead of racing through email, you recalibrate your sense of what’s normal. You re-integrate a new, healthier pace for your brain and body. Sometimes you can even remember that there’s more to life than getting more stuff done (like hugging, savoring a meal, or contemplating clouds).

I’ve written a bunch about the value of retreating. So has Jen Louden and Elizabeth Gilbert and a gaggle of other awesome people. Maybe there’s some merit to this slowing down thing. Just maybe.


If you’re distracted, just know that you’re in good company. Setting an intention to be kind to yourself and compassionate in your solutions can make a big difference.

Are these ideas helpful? What else helps transform your distraction?


  1. Miss Jen! Your timing is so perfect! Betcha didn’t know that! *grin*

    I was just talking this morning with one of my fibromyalgia clients about this exact thing! Seriously! We were talking about what to do when faced with distraction like this, and how to handle it. (The medical term in fibro folks is “fibrofog.”)

    Do you know what my final suggestion to her was? To come check out the recommended reading on your site. =) I’ll make sure she knows about this article too.

    There was a study done recently on brain fog in fibromyalgia patients that showed that their responses were extremely similar to the responses of patients with ADD. No wonder your techniques work so well for us! I’ll be sharing this!
    Tami Stackelhouse´s last blog post ..Honoring Your Body- Getting to Know YOU

  2. Really appreciated Spa Day today–a gentle, effective exercise that guarantees success! And this post reiterates and expands on what struck me as the most helpful bits–mindfully setting the intention to be kind, compassionate, and nurturing to our selves. Feels like the healthiest way to work through physical and mental clutter. Thanks!

  3. 1809 days ago,
    Lea Shulman said:

    Jenn – perfect! Love the analogy. Thanks for breaking it down. Very insightful!

  4. Thanks, Jen, for another great article.
    I love the days when my partner is at work and I’m at home alone with the dogs with nothing specific on my schedule. I’ve been noticing that on those days as I move organically from one thing that I want to do to another thing that I want to do — which may or may not be business-related — that I spend less time “snacking” — whatever that might look like. And that I really don’t feel like “snacking.”

  5. […] in catalogues ( I have a crush on Viva Terra) are total design porn and not grounded in reality. Or this lovely epistle on distraction where she confesses to have started the post two weeks prior and had been feverishly […]

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