7 ways to battle distraction and keep your rabbit-brain in check

A few weeks back, Derick Bailey forwarded me an email he’d received from one of his subscribers, asking for my take on the question the reader had posed.

The question boiled down to this:

How do you stay focused on a side project (app, site, book idea) as an entrepreneurial developer?

Here’s what I had to say…


Staying focused and sticking with something to see it through to completion is difficult for most people.

But if you have an entrepreneurial streak, chances are it’s even tougher for you to focus than it is for the average person.

You see new ideas everywhere you look. Every new problem or irritation is a potential piece of software. Every interesting thought is a potential best-seller. Every new business idea encounter seems like a sure-fire winner.

I have this problem so bad, it’s hard to believe.

Here is a partial list of things I’ve taken an interest in over the course of my 33 years of existence:

  • Sketching
  • Calligraphy
  • Guitar
  • Wood carving
  • Golf
  • Archery
  • Hunting
  • Fly fishing
  • Fly tying
  • Chess
  • Photography
  • Writing
  • Camping and outdoor survival
  • Camera repair
  • Programming
  • Leathercraft
  • Straight razor shaving
  • Blacksmithing
  • Hand-crafting knives and straight razors
  • Karate
  • Shorthand
  • Scrimshaw
  • Woodworking
  • Cartooning
  • Computer repair
  • DIY home remodeling
  • Marketing
  • Graphic design
  • Mobile app development
  • Diet and nutrition
  • Fitness
  • Strength training
  • Baseball
  • Bullwhips and whip-cracking
  • Journalism

I should mention that these weren’t just passing interests; I spent weeks or months studying and practicing these many of these skills, and in a lot of cases I either considered turning them into a business or actually did it.

I’m so prone to going off on “kicks” like this that my long-suffering wife just ignores my antics. (I once spent two weeks tinkering with an antique camera on the desk in our bedroom before she finally broke down and asked, “What are you doing, exactly?”)

So yeah, distraction.

I used to think that tendency was a character flaw, but I’ve come to see it as a source of strength. When you have this mindset, you see trends and opportunities that others miss. It helps you stay positive in a cynical and negative world. And you never get bored.

There’s a downside, of course. When you’re trying to work on your own side projects and juggling a full-time job, that tendency toward distraction can be lethal to your ability to make progress on anything. Your time is already very limited, so wasting a few hours chasing something new and shiny can easily mean you’ve sacrificed an entire week’s worth of progress on that thing you really should be working on.

I haven’t discovered a magic formula to distraction-proof myself. But here are a few things that have really helped me keep my rabbit-brain in check.

Get crystal clear about your goal. What is it that you really want? Do you want to earn more money? Be your own boss? Create a killer app that customers love? This seems really basic, but if you don’t know what you’re really aiming for, you’ll fall prey to every distraction imaginable.

Don’t focus on being more productive. Focus on eliminating things that don’t move you closer to your goal. This can include household tasks that can be outsourced (Derick and John convinced me to pay to have my lawn done), but it also includes seemingly worthwhile projects that take time away from the one thing that’s going to help you achieve your goal.

Make it part of your daily routine. Find an activity or set of tasks that you can do every day that moves you closer to your goal. If you’re not taking daily action to move toward a goal, you’re not serious about it.

Work on it first thing. I’ve tried to work on my projects in the evening, but after a full day of coding, I’m toast. Once I realized that, I trained myself to get up early, and now I put in time on my own projects every morning before work.

Be realistic about what you can accomplish. No matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, I only have about 15 hours per week to work on my own projects. Knowing what that limit is forces me to make better choices about what I do with the time available.

Find an accountability group. Joining a mastermind group with Derick Bailey and John Sonmez, both of whom have more programming and entrepreneurial experience than I do, has been a major help. They have at times (jokingly?) threatened me with bodily harm when I’ve been tempted to succumb to distraction. Short of, um, physical intervention, having like-minded friends who can remind me of my true goals helps me set aside new ideas and get back to doing what I should be doing.

Keep an idea journal. Sometimes an idea will sink it’s teeth into me and just won’t let go. No matter how hard I try to stay focused, my brain keeps chattering away about how well it would work. In these cases, I often find it helpful to stop what I’m doing and just indulge the idea for a while. I’ll grab a pen and notebook and just start planning the idea as if I intended to start working on it immediately. I’ll pull out my calculator and figure out how much traffic I’d get, or how much I’d earn from the launch. I keep going until I feel the adrenaline rush start to burn out. Usually I start to realize that this new idea will be just as much work as what I’m already doing, and switching gears to work on it will mean the work I’ve done on my current project will go to waste. At this point, I have captured the idea, and gotten past the initial rush of enthusiasm. I’ll close my notebook and get back to work. Even if this process takes an hour or two, it’s usually better than trying to just ignore the idea while it yammers away at me.

Unfortunately, this battle never ends. Even with all the progress I’ve made toward containing my inner toddler, I still struggle to see major projects through to completion.

But after managing to launch two books (and reaping the financial rewards), I can attest that it’s a worthwhile fight.

Beth Anne - January 8, 2015

Great tips!

I can be just like you – always moving on to a new hobby, interest, or idea. I use Evernote to stockpile all my ideas, and it works great! I also “idea-dump” on my husband and my sister. I get it off my chest and then I can move on/let it go for a while!

I think you’re also right about being realistic about how much time you have. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and my primary focus is on my son. If I thought I could spend 60 hours a week on the business, I’d be setting myself up for disaster. I’d be more anxious, always feeling like a failure, and not giving my family the attention they need. Realistic goals while stretching yourself just a bit…. that’s the space I like to live in.

Rick Siderfin - January 11, 2015

Great post, Josh! Thanks for this. Thought I was the only one who could list reams of current and past obsessions. The stream of new ideas flow in plague proportions at times.

Another rabbit warren I used to frequently get caught in was buying great-sounding .com domain names. Finally, I managed to stop myself as it was getting quite expensive. Now, every time I find a .com domain that no one else has thought to register, I make a note of it in Wunderlist. And I put a handful of the domains I do own onto a basic wordpress site [ultimatedotcom.com] – in future I may have to make a business of this habit…

    Josh - January 11, 2015

    Oh, yeah, the domain name thing can get out of hand quickly. I have about 15, most of which I never used. 🙂

    It could definitely be a business if you have a knack for it…

Spencer Goldade - April 23, 2015

Considering I wrote like 10 emails and 20 text messages while reading this article, I’d say it’s probably great advice that I’ll attempt to adopt. 😉

Danilo Tambone - July 31, 2015

Great post, Josh!
And I definitely share your view.
I’ve been fighting against distraction, multitasking, and multiple projects running on the side.
Traditional productivity techniques didn’t work out. They were created during last century, btw, and they can’t really keep the pace with the astonishing amount of info, connections, and interests we have today!

So I searched for, and learned, better ways to stay on top of my productivity – and in the end I’ve tweaked, for personal use, the agile tools that small, medium, and big companies use today to crush their competitors.

That “tweak” has made so much wonders that in the end I decided to teach is to as many people as possible!

If you’re curious, here’s my outcome: http://bit.do/SKYROCKET

Thanks again for your post, and keep up the good work!

    Josh Earl - July 31, 2015

    Thanks for sharing, Danilo! 🙂

Abhishek - August 13, 2015

I have been struggling to keep up with everything lately. Thanks for these suggestions. For ideas, I use Google Keep, not very useful but comes handy.

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