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How to Focus Your Thoughts

for Action
by Jean Moroney


The Problem of Concentration .................................................................... 2

The Solution: Thinking on Paper .............................................................. 2
Example 1: Email vs. The Report................................................................ 3
Example 2: Website Procrastination ........................................................... 4
Four Guidelines for Thinking on Paper ..................................................... 6
Starting with the Goal.................................................................................. 8
Using Full Sentences .................................................................................. 9
The Role of Questions .............................................................................. 11
Monitoring Progress .................................................................................. 13
Thinking on Paper Exercise ...................................................................... 15
How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action

The Problem of Concentration

When you are trying to jump start a project, nothing is more important
than moving into action, as soon as possible.

And yet, you may have something you need to figure out first. Maybe
you need to figure out the next step. Maybe you need tap into your
motivation. Maybe you need to find a time in your schedule.

When you identify exactly what you need to think about, you then need
to concentrate. You cant just let your mind flit to what occurs to it. You
need to zero in on the question and work out an answer.

Sometimes thats easy. The subject draws you in, and you become
absorbed in your work. Other times its hard. You may feel that youre
not in the mood, or that there is too much noise, or youd like to get
something else done first. There are impediments to concentration every
day. And those are impediments to action.

The Solution: Thinking on Paper

Whenever you have trouble settling down, trying to concentrate on a

thinking task, I recommend turning immediately to thinking on paper.
Thinking on paper is a process of making a written transcript of your
thinking, as you think. You act as your own court reporter, transcribing
your thoughts as they come, putting them down, unedited, on paper or
on the computer screen.

Thinking on paper helps you turn your attention away from minor
distractions and to the topic at hand. Should you get interrupted, you can
quickly get back into the subject just by re-reading.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
For example, if you are unsure of your priorities, it is easy to sit
fidgeting at your desk, imagining things you could be doingwithout
doing themand worrying about what youre not doing. But if you use
thinking on paper, you can focus your mind quickly. Below is a
simple, made-up example, based on my experiences.

Example 1: Email vs. The Report

I need to figure out what I should work on right now. [pause] What are
the choices? I could start that big report or take care of some things
I need to check my email.

Which is the better use of my time? I need to get started on that

report, but it wouldnt hurt to check my email quickly. Except that
email is sometimes just procrastination. But I dont know whats in my
inbox. Maybe its something important. Well, maybe its not! Email is
usually for non-urgent items. And thats the problemI check the
email and get drawn into answering it, even though its not the best
use of my time. Yes, email is a diversion. I should start working on that
report. Lets see.

Where do I begin? I should review the notes I made last week and see
what the next step is.

Doing thinking like this on paper instead of in your head has several
advantages. First, because your eyes and hands are occupied, you stop
paying attention to whats on your desk. A lot of time can be wasted
shuffling through papersa lot more than the 3-4 minutes it would take
to go through this exercise. So, you speed up the decision process.

Second, you reach a better decision. If you did the thinking in Email vs.
The Report in your head, you might be motivated by the idea, it
wouldnt hurt to check my email quickly. I know I might be off
checking email before the thought was fully formulated. In contrast,
when you write out such a thought on paper, you focus on it and test it.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action

When you are in a bit of a muddle, thinking on paper helps you settle
down and go step-by-step. Example 2: Website Procrastination is a real-
life case that comes out of my own thinking notebook. (I edited it lightly
for readability.)

Example 2: Website Procrastination

I keep putting off rolling out the new website. I absolutely need to do itits
getting critical. Ive already made some changes to the old one, which will have
to be updated in the new one. How can I get it done?

Well, Ive tried the just do it approach, and that has failed miserably. I guess
I need to break it up into steps. What is everything I need to do to get the new
website up?
Open up the new files in Expression.

Possible problem. I was totally clueless when I tried it before. I have to have
some confidence I can work with Expression before I go live.
Try to edit the filesupdate them with the new information.
Publish the website to the new host.

Before I do that, dont I need to put something up at the new host just to be
sure I can? Yup.

What else? Well, really, after it is up, I have to:

Redirect over to the new host.

And while Im at it:

Renew all our domains.

[I paused here.] So what is the actual barrier here?

[I re-read.] I guess I need to give myself permission to fool around in Expression

for say 30 minutes to see if there is any real problem. But first, put up a test
page at the new host.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action

At the time I did this thinking, I was preparing to do two things: to

change hosts for my website, and to switch to a new program (called
Expression) to manage the pages on it. A friend had converted my
pages to the new format, but I hadnt done anything with them. I wasnt
sure what was stopping me, so I used a general question.

In this example, the thinking process was rather messy. It had stops and
starts and backtracking. My course of action was not clear to me when I
began. Prior to doing this thinking in my notebook, I remember going in
circles in my head. But when I wrote the thoughts down on paper, I was
able to sort out the order in which tasks needed to be done. (Once I
sorted out the order, I had no further delays in getting the website up. I
did exactly what I said I should do at the end of the example.)

Once again, by helping me concentrate my attention on the task at hand,

and go step by step, thinking on paper sped up a stalled process.

The fundamental purpose of thinking is to figure out what to do, what

action to take. Almost every day I do a little thinking on paper about
my priorities, my plans, my next tasks.

When you are stalled on any project, your thinking is stalled. Some
concentrated thinking is in order, and I know no better way to initiate
that process than by thinking on paper. You may write only a few
lines to re-evaluate your priorities, or you may write out a page or two to
figure out why youre blocked. Or you might go through the 3-step
process from Jump Start Your Project. You write only as much as is
needed to figure out the problem and to move yourself into action.

(Of course, you can use thinking on paper for longer thinking tasks,
such as writing or analysis. In those cases, your goal is clarity, not action
per se.)

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action

Four Guidelines for Thinking on Paper

How do you do it? I give brief guidelines below, plus some tips.


Thinking on paper means writing out your thoughts, in full sentences, as you
think. Do it to help you do your best thinking and record your train of thought.

1. Start by writing down your overall goal.

2. Record your thoughts in full sentences, following the main line of thinking.

3. Whenever you hesitate, write down a helpful question to get your thoughts
moving on a path toward the goal. Then answer the question.

4. Monitor your progress and priorities and redirect as needed.

If you have a problem, stop to identify the exact problem. Then switch to
thinking about a solution that would redirect you to a path toward the main goal.


Complaining is permitted. Complaining about a problem on paper is a good

way to clarify exactly what the problem is.
Do not edit your thinking on paper or censor your thoughts. (This is
particularly important if you are doing thinking on paper on a computer.)
Keep your thinking on paper private. Usually your thought process will not
be clear to others. If you want to communicate the ideas with someone else,
write up a summary of your conclusions.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
The guidelines are deliberately brief. Let me explain further.

Thinking on paper uses your natural thinking process. You already

know how to solve problems, make decisions, and analyze situations.
Thinking on paper shouldnt change your approachit should just
record it.

Fundamentally, there is only one instruction for thinking on paper:

transcribe your thoughts in full sentences as you think them.

Full sentences are important for two reasons.

First, slowing down to write your thoughts in a full sentence allows you
to absorb its full meaning. You consider each thought longer. This gives
you extra time to judge the thoughtIs it true? Clear? Important? Such
judgments are important for keeping thinking productive, and they are
made almost effortlessly when you slow down and write out the
thoughts in full sentences.

Thats because, a sentence is a group of words that expresses a

complete thought. By writing full sentences, you ensure you record
and considerthe complete thought.

Second, when you write your thinking out in full sentences, it is easy to
understand when you re-read it. That means you can easily recapture the
train of thought by simply re-reading.

Only full sentences guarantee youll be able to remember what you were
thinking after an interruption. If instead you just jot down some notes
and phrases, you will often find the material to be cryptic when you
come back to re-read it. This is an established fact of your experience
and mine. So, dont settle for recording half-thoughts. You dont want to
lose your work.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
The guidelines help you with some foreseeable difficulties in
implementing this seemingly simple advice. They help ensure you dont
sabotage your natural thinking ability when you start transcribing your
thoughts onto paper.

Starting with the Goal

The first guideline is to start by writing down your overall goal. You are
thinking because you want to figure something outwhat to do today,
how to undertake a project, which option is best, etc. You always have a
goal in your thinking. When you think on paper, start by making your
goal explicit. You can write the goal as a statement, question, or
command. For example, I could have written the goal in Email vs. The
Report in any of these ways:

I need to figure out what I should work on right now.

What should I work on right now?
Decide what to work on right now.

When you start by naming the goal, its easier to keep your thinking
process headed straight. (If you dont know the goal, you are apt to
wander off on an unproductive tangent.)

Setting a clear goal at the beginning makes thinking on paper different

from freewriting, which consists of recording a stream of

When you start thinking, the goal may be a little vague. If so, the first
thing to do is to work it out. Notice that in Website Procrastination, I
stumbled around a bit before I finally articulated the goal in the fourth
sentence, where I wrote: How can I get it done? (This is the means
question from Jump Start Your Project. The process in that audio class
helps you choose an appropriate goal.)

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action

If I hadnt set a clear, solution-focused goal (how can I get it done?), I

may have fallen into musing on why do I procrastinate? or what
changes have I made to the website already? These would be a waste of

Setting an explicit thinking goal helps to ensure that you put your mental
effort on the task you think is most important.

Using Full Sentences

The second guideline is to record your thoughts in full sentences,

following the main line of thinking. Again, there is only one
fundamental instruction for thinking on paper: write out your thoughts
in full sentences as they occur to you.

Many people object that they cant possibly transcribe all their thoughts
in full sentences. So let me clarify. You do not have to capture your
entire mental statejust the main line of thinking.

In a normal thinking process, you often are aware of several ideas that
are hovering at the fringes of awareness. In Email vs. The Report, the
following thoughts may have been in the fringes of awareness at the
time I was thinking, Except email is just procrastination.

But I dont know whats in my inbox.

I have a problem with procrastination.
I procrastinated yesterday by reading my email.
Whats for lunch?

The only thought to write down is the one you turn your attention to as
the next thought. It is the one you choose to pursue in your line of
thinking. Dont record the other fringe thoughts.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
As a contrast, let me try to describe my entire mental state from
Website Procrastination during the time I wrote: How can I get it
done? The just-do-it approach has failed miserably. I guess I need to
break it up into steps.

As I wrote out, How can I get it done? the words JUST DO IT!
boomed from my subconscious, followed immediately by a feeling of
disgusted bitterness, because I felt I had already tried to just do it, so
this was useless advice. By the time I had finished writing How can I
get it done? I had articulated my somewhat incoherent complaint as,
The just-do-it-approach has failed miserably.

As I wrote those words out, the irony of my situation was clear to me. In
my workshops, I teach people how to deal with this exact problem.
When repeated attempts to just do it fail, the problem is almost always
that you are skipping necessary steps. Here was a textbook casebut it
hadnt been apparent to me until that moment. I remember feeling
chagrined, as I thought both, Why didnt I see that before? and I
guess I need to break it up into steps. I wrote down the latterthe
thought that kept me moving toward a solution, rather than the thought
that invited self-recriminations.

As you can see, I had mixed feelings as I sat down to work through the
website issues. Thinking on paper helped me go step-by-step. It
helped make my thinking more linear. Having to choose the thought to
pursue makes thinking move forward.

Sometimes people get a little stuck writing down their thoughts, because
they are not sure which is the right thought to pursue. Dont worry
about that. Remember, you are an experienced thinker and you can and
should use your usual judgment. Pick the thought that seems best at the
moment, and dont worry if you decide later it was the wrong choice.

If you decide you are going down a blind alley, just go back and re-read
up to the choice-point. When you get there, the same set of ideas will

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
occur to you that occurred to you the first time, and you can make a
different choice. When you re-read, you warm up the same mental
circuits that were active before. (Thats how I was able to describe my
mental state in more detail than I had recorded on paper.)

Do not worry that your thinking on paper looks inelegant. Thinking

on paper is often messy. There is often backtracking. The point is to
record your next thought, not to win a style contest. So, when my next
thought was yup, I wrote, yup.

Since it can be messy, keep your thinking on paper private. It is a

record of how you got to an answer, not a cleaned up presentation. All
that counts is that you keep thinking until you achieve your thinking

This is why I say you should not edit your thinking on paper. As soon
as you start changing what you wrote, you have dropped your thinking
purpose. You are trying to make the process look elegant instead of
trying to get an answer. (This may not apply to fixing typos as you go, if
you can do that semi-automatically. The test is, can you keep your
attention on making forward progress, not on cleaning something up?)

So, if you pause to think, No, thats not right, then write down, No,
thats not right, which will give you a moment to think how to move

The Role of Questions

The third guideline is, whenever you hesitate, write down a helpful
question to get your thoughts moving on a path toward the goal. Then
answer the question.

At a certain point, a given line of thought may come to a natural end or

peter out, and you will need to re-direct your thinking. When you hit

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
such a stop, you may feel a sense of hesitation. A new question starts
you thinking again.

In Email vs. The Report, the first hesitation came immediately after
stating the goal, I need to figure out what I should work on right now.
So I asked myself, What are the choices? That was an easier question
that started me thinking about relevant issues. Once it was answered, the
thinking came to another brief stop. The next follow-up question,
which is the better use of my time? gave my thinking a little push back
toward figuring out what to work on.

In Website Procrastination, I came to stop after I had laid out what

seemed like a lot of easy things to do. During that pause, I had a sense
that the task couldnt be that easy, or I would have already done it. So I
asked a question that directed me back to the goal: What is the actual
barrier here? That helped me pin down exactly what steps to take to get
the website up.

Thinking has a cadence, a back and forth of questions and answers,

almost like a discussion with yourself.

You may be unaware that youre asking questions at times, because they
can be asked in a kind of mental shorthand. For example, the question
what is the actual barrier here? might first be felt as a so? When
you think on paper you spell out these mental nudges in fully verbal

Spelling out the complete question will slow you down. Thats a good
thing. When you slow down, you can absorb the full meaning of the
question and come up with a better answer.

Slowing down the questions can sometimes speed up your work

dramatically. More than once I have found myself stalling for several
minutes, not sure what I should be doing, but by the time I had pulled
out a piece of paper and had written, what is the best use of my time

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
right now? the answer was obvious. I didnt even need to write out the
answerI could launch into action.

Monitoring Progress

The fourth guideline is to monitor your progress and priorities, and

redirect as needed. This means, if you have a problem, stop to identify
the exact problem. Then switch to thinking about a solution that would
redirect you to a path toward the main goal.

Monitoring your progress and priorities and redirecting is necessary for

any goal-directed action.

When youre driving a car, monitoring your progress means paying

attention to where you are relative to where youre going. Sometimes
you get lost, and need to redirectidentify a new route to the

In driving, monitoring your priorities means paying attention to the

relative importance of all your competing side goals, compared with the
main goal. For example, you may want to get to your destination
quickly, but not if it risks an accident. And you may want to do some
errands on the way, but not if that means youll be late. When you notice
that a side goal is interfering with the main goal, you redirect to achieve
your priority.

The same kind of monitoring is needed in thinking.

In a brief thought process such as Email vs. The Report, monitoring

may be easy. There is constant forward progress. The question of
priorities is answered easily.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action
In a longer, more complex thought process, like my thinking in Website
Procrastination, you may need to stop to review progress and re-direct
the thinking. Thats what I did when I asked, Whats the barrier here?

If you notice you are struggling, ask yourself, whats the problem
here? Naming the problem always helps. It is the first step in every
problem-solving method. In the words of Louis Sullivan, the problem
contains and suggests its own solution.

One way to name the problem is to switch to complaining on paper.

Vent. Complain. Explain to yourself why this is an impossible task or a
waste of time or whatever it is that bothers about it.

Complaining is a means to an end. Once you have gotten the issues out
in the open, you are in a good position to turn your thinking back to a
solution. How can you address this problem in such a way that you can
achieve your original goal?

Then, simply use your existing problem-solving expertise to tackle any

problems you run into during thinking on paper. If you want more
problem-solving and decision-making tools, they exist, and I have
courses and products to teach them. But thinking on paper is the basic
tool for overcoming mental blocks that derail a thinking process.

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How to Focus Your Thoughts for Action


Now that you understand the tactic, its time to try it out. Choose a
question to think on paper about. Here are some suggestions:

How could I get more free time to do _________?

What am I going to do about the __________ problem?
I keep putting off _________. Do I need to do it? And if so, whats the
plan to get it done?
What are my priorities for _________?

Choose a question for which the answer is not obvious to you. A

question of modest difficulty is best for your first time trying the
Choose a question you are interested in answering. By that I mean, you
want an answer to your question, and the answer is worth at least five
minutes of your time.
On a separate sheet of paper, do thinking on paper on this topic for at
least five minutes.
You can formulate your goal as a question, command, or statement.
If you are having trouble choosing a topic, you might think on
paper on the question what should I spend my time thinking
about? Then, when you have an answer, switch to the topic you
If you get stuck, switch to complaining on paper about why the task is
difficult. Once you have identified the problem, start looking for

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