Oh Look, a Squirrel! How to Find Focus with an Easily Distracted Mind
Photo courtesy of Justin Ennis.

Oh Look, a Squirrel! How to Find Focus with an Easily Distracted Mind

Written by Brenda Scott

Topics: Lifestyle Design

Note from Emilie: hi everyone, meet Brenda! Brenda is our second new Staff Writer at Puttylike, and this is her first post on the blog. Let’s all give her a warm welcome. (And enjoy this piece; I think you’re going to relate.)


In my life, I experience a strange mix of being easily distracted and being extremely focused. Some days I can focus for hours at a time, but many days I look out my window on Squirrel Hill, and – “Oh, look, a squirrel!”

I think about perhaps making a Squirrel Hill logo and daydream about a couple of squirrel designs I could create.

Then the phone rings. My mind flits to another project, and I check out a related website.

Then one of the cats decides to walk across the desk in front of the computer screen.

Then I feel the strong need for another cup of tea.

Can you relate?

In the past, friends have told me, “You can get a prescription for that!” Instead, I prefer to embrace this so-called distraction as a powerful means of brainstorming.

Unfortunately, if I just let myself flit at random all day, I might get into trouble with deadlines. However, I’ve come up with some strategies to help harness some of this creative, squirrelly goodness.

1) Let Your Mind Wander

Give yourself some daydreaming time and the permission to let your mind wander. I tend to let myself daydream in the mornings while I make coffee, as well as at lunchtime. But timing is not the important factor. There are two important elements here:

The first is making time for the act of daydreaming or, as I like to think of it, brainstorming. The second is giving yourself permission to spend some of your time this way.

Daydreaming is often frowned upon and you may have bad memories of being scolded for doing it, particularly in class. Now you can embrace that distraction. If you still find yourself daydreaming or brainstorming while working on another task, don’t worry, simply…

2) Use a Daydream Catcher

You’ve heard of a dreamcatcher, right? It’s a lovely web that you hang over your bed to catch your dreams when you sleep. Well, a daydream catcher is a catcher for the dreams, brainstorms, and ideas you have when you’re awake.

It doesn’t matter so much what form your catcher takes, as long as you have one. During or after your daydream session, use your preferred daydream catcher to jot down ideas you want to consider at a later time.

When in doubt, catch the idea. It’s easier to erase ideas than to try to remember them later on. Also, it can be easier to get back to another task at hand knowing that all of your exciting new ideas are safe in your daydream catcher for later consideration and study.

3) Map out Your Daydreams

Set aside time (not necessarily during your daydream time) to map out your daydreams and brainstorms. Think back to the dreamcatcher as a web, and map out your daydreams using a similar structure.

I love mind maps, but sometimes these tools, with their focus on one overarching theme connected to smaller and related ideas, aren’t enough for a multipod’s disparate ideas. The solution? Start with a number of main ideas on a page and then look for connections.

I write the connections or intersections on or below a line that I draw between two ideas. Not all ideas connect, but creating a visual map like this helps me to see connections and intersections. It sometimes points out where there are very separate projects as well as where there are related projects.

Overall, the daydream map is a great tool to clarify your own ideas and, if you choose, to share them. Once you have your ideas mapped out like this, you can easily explain them to friends or co-workers using your maps as visual aids.

Getting Back to Work

Now that you have a system in place, when you find yourself distracted, pause to harvest your ideas. Then get back to the task at hand, knowing that you’ve captured your amazing brainstorming and daydreams for later.

Oh look, a squirrel! I’m off to make notes in my daydream catcher…

Your Turn

What ideas have you captured today? How have you captured them?

brenda-bioDr. Brenda Scott is a fine art photographer, writer, and cellist. Originally trained as a musician and organologist, she has worked as a curator of a small musical instrument museum and her Stagville: Black & White exhibit has been displayed at the North Carolina Museum of History and is currently on tour. She enjoys teaching and holds degrees from the University of Oxford, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Auburn University, and the Academy of Art University. View her work at brendascottarts.com or follow her on Twitter @brendascottarts.


  1. Tomoko says:

    I have two boys, and they both have a bit of inattention AND obsessiveness in varying degrees. My oldest will work on something for a LONG time… and the younger will rush from one to the next, not really calm enough to stay focused on anything…
    As a mom, so easy to worry and so hard not to chastize. Thanks for reminding me to value their learning process and seeing the positive aspects of behavior that seems unproductive, inefficient, pointless…
    These days, I feel sad for kids who are not allowed time to be free, to explore, and to discover at their own time and ways…
    So thank you.

    • Brenda Scott says:

      You’re welcome and a big thank you for the comments, Tomoko.

      Based on my own observations through teaching kids, I think many are over-scheduled and that school programs do not always encourage those students who are daydreamers. I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with some kind of attention deficit disorder of some sort had I been a kid now instead of so long ago. I’m glad I had teachers who allowed us time to explore and try new ideas. The sad thing is that I think sometimes the brightest kids are the explorers or those who get drawn into projects for hours. And now I’ve heard of some of my private music students getting into trouble in their regular classes for what I see as them being bright kids exploring the world.

      Knowing you, I bet your boys are amazingly bright. Do you think they’d enjoy keeping a special notebook that was a daydream catcher? Would that be exciting to them? If they ever complained of being bored, you could then point them to their daydream catcher, and they’d have lots of ideas for projects.

      Your kids are lucky to have such an amazing mother.

  2. Michael neece says:

    Brilliant! For my daydream organizer, I have a tab in OneNote with multiple pages (and subpages) to help me shift those ideas around. It’s not as graphically visual, but it is easy to drag, drop, edit, add, delete, etc.

    LOVE YOUR SUGGESTIONS – I suffer from similar scattered times versus deeply focused times, so your thoughts resonate with me.

    Thank you!

    • Brenda Scott says:

      You’re welcome – and a big thank you to you, Michael!

      I knew you’d be organized. That sounds like a great system on your computer. I have a notebook, but I also use Evernote for catching materials on the internet.

      So you get that, too? The focus alternating with, “Oh look! A squirrel!”?

      Thanks for your comments. :)

  3. Yvonne says:

    So happy to have found this website and I love the idea of dream catchers. My husband, family, and friends find humor in how I jump around from one thing to another. Your post made me think of my internet browser on both my lap top and phone…I usually at any given time have anywhere from 10 to 15 different tabs opened up because when I think of something, I type it into google so I won’t forget.
    Thanks again for your post!

  4. Donna says:

    Great ideas! I used to record my ideas with a pocket recorder.

  5. Brenda Scott says:

    You’re welcome and thanks for your comments, Yvonne!

    Your browser sounds a bit like mine! I use Evernote online and a notebook the rest of the time. Evernote allows me to grab things to read or link back to later. Just knowing I’ve saved the material often allows me to continue with the tasks at hand that need to get done. But I’m so tied to paper books and notebooks that I tend to revert back to paper and a favorite pen where possible.

    Glad you found your way here. :)

    – Brenda

  6. Michael says:

    Excellent suggestions. I use a “Field Notes” notebook as my daydream/idea book. It goes with me everywhere, either in a pocket or a bag. It is always at hand and I find that it helps me be much more productive. Just knowing that I can take a few minutes to write down a thought/idea frees me up to put more energy into the task in front of me. The notebook is also helpful to plan out future projects as the inspiration strikes. It is just the right size to be both handy and useful.

    • Brenda Scott says:

      Thanks, Michael. I love the idea of using a Field Notes notebook! I’ve resorted to inexpensive composition books, but they are not a good size to carry in my pocket.

      Great comments, particularly about just knowing that you can stop and catch ideas at any time allowing you to put more into a task at hand.

      I love it when the ideas are just rolling forward, as long as I have somewhere to catch them.

  7. Anneri says:

    Ah yes, the elusive squirrel… I keep a notepad next to me as I study and jot down ideas when they pop up. It is the only way I can actually focus on the work I am supposed to be doing. I know I will have time later to get back to my squirrels and feed them :-)

    I have never thought of putting them all into a mindmap and seeing where the paths cross – I will definitely try that one. Thanks for a great read!

    • Brenda Scott says:

      Ah yes! Squirrel feeding! Well put. :-)

      I love the mind maps. They help me a lot – even when I do them in this sort of non traditional way. Let me know how it works for you.

      • Chelsea says:

        Oh, could you share an example of how you draw your mind maps? I KNOW this is what I need to do, and often just get caught up in the web when I start to organize it. Seeing an example would be helpful. Thank you for this awesome article!

        • Brenda Scott says:

          Hi, Chelsea.

          To make my mind maps using my daydreams, I put everything down on a sheet of paper (usually two pages across my notebook), and then I start to make connections and add hubs where possible. This is the reverse of how I learned to make mind maps (starting with a hub and working outward). Rarely everything connects, but sometimes it does. Here is a GIF of my modified mind map: https://www.dropbox.com/s/wtxqsa5j9c1fwet/Mind_Map.gif?dl=0 Please let me know if you have any questions and let me know if this helps at all. Thanks!


  8. Christie says:

    This is great advice! The article definitely compliments the one I read recently about making lists. I bought a notebook and have been putting things in the “Stuff I Want To Do,” “Stuff I Want to Make,” and “Stuff I Want to Write” lists. I think I will save a section for daydream mapping now and see how it goes.

    I also really appreciate the comment about giving yourself permission to daydream/brainstorm. That seems to be a big barrier to a lot of things for me, and the relief I feel when someone says “you know it’s ok to do/be like/whatever that, right?” has hit home enough that I’ve actually started to notice.


    • Brenda Scott says:

      Thanks, Christie!

      Yes – It upsets me greatly when people, especially kids, are put down for daydreaming. It’s usually the brightest, most creative minds that get criticized for this. Sometimes I feel we’re living out a scene from _The Brave New World_ where everyone is expected to think in the same way and conform to some norm that doesn’t upset the status quo. On the flip side, if we do have minds that wander, and we have to make a living, we have to find ways to get on with our work and still nurture our creativity.

      Thanks for being in touch – and please keep me posted with how it’s going.

      Keep daydreaming!
      – Brenda

  9. Marianne Cirone says:

    Brenda, can you or anyone else post a visual of one of these dream catchers? I tend to be the same way, and have heard that hyper focus is a part of the same mind wandering syndrome, because we are looking for something that deeply interest us before we land and settle.

  10. Thanks for reminding us that it’s ok to have squirrel brain! I also love Anneri’s comment regarding “feeding” the squirrels! I think I’m going to make myself a sign that reads, “Please Feed the Squirrels.” :-)

  11. Sonja Sophie Sonnenschein says:

    Mann thank, Brenda, for these encouraging article. Isn’t it always about awareness, gratitude and letting go ;-) I love your dream catcher idea.
    Have a sunny day

  12. Alison D says:

    Welcome, Brenda! And thank you for this great advice. :)

    • Brenda Scott says:

      Thanks for the words of welcome, Alison, and you’re so welcome. Glad you liked the advice. I’m excited about the next posts I’m writing.

      Everyone, do let me know if there’s any burning topic you are interested in, and in the meantime, I’m working on some things to do with Alice in Wonderland, baseball, and Our Town. :) Oh, look! A squirrel!


      • Alison D says:

        Brenda, I’m excited to read your next posts :) also, I love squirrels and the movie “UP” so this post and comments just has lots of happiness for me :D

        • Brenda Scott says:

          Thanks, Alison! :) I love squirrels except when they start eating my house. (Just caught one in the act. I’ve now prepared some delicious-smelling super hot sauce and sprayed it on the woodwork outside. I hope I don’t look out and see they’ve brought napkins and picnic accessories, because they love hot sauce.) I do love them, though, even when they are naughty.

          See you in the comments again I hope.


  13. Gina says:

    This sounds like something I should definitely try out. I’ve just come across this site recently and it’s been one eye-opening insight after another into my personality.

    Lately (read, for the last I don’t know how many years) I’ve found myself paralyzed by where to keep my ideas. Buying several tiny notebooks, one for each topic, barely starting them, maybe all the ideas should be on the computer, my phone, voice recorded for transcribing late, tattooed on my person, and then most of those poor little ideas never end up being written down or revisited in earnest.

    I like the visual concept you’ve written about and feel like I need to give this a good, honest shot. Thanks Brenda!

    Now I’m off to read more tips on managing myself, hopefully I won’t get distracted by squirrels.

    • Brenda Scott says:

      Thanks, Gina! Best of luck, and I’m so glad you’re here on Puttylike now. I’m pretty new, too, and I love it. Keep me posted, and . . . Oh, look! A squirrel. (just kidding) Stay in touch!


  14. Jim says:

    Brenda, thank you for a very helpful article. I’ve been listening to an audiobook recently that gives a different perspective on you topic. In “Understanding Women,” speaker Alison Armstrong believes that most women tend to have “diffused awareness,” which is the inclination and ability to be aware of many different streams of thought at the same time. It takes a lot of energy and intention for people with that orientation to have sustained single focus. Your suggestions help to formalize and structure that process.

  15. Brenda Scott says:

    You’re welcome, Jim. I’ve met both men and women with that ability to be aware of and monitor different streams of thought simultaneously. Sometimes I wonder whether or not women in our society are expected to do so, while men are excused from this task and encouraged to focus. It’s all fascinating to think about and study. Thanks for reaching out.


  16. Christine says:

    Hi Brenda, I am so happy to find this article! It is so me and I am thinking my son as well. I majored in art and exercise science but I had done so many things ( fitness instructor, worked in finance, taught swimming, substitute teacher, Occupational therapist asst., software analyst/engineer, advocate for kids with special needs, business analyst, UX designer. I love to learn and experience new things. My son at a young age was diagnosed w ADHD and then when telling my story someone suggested that I have it too. I hate labels and what I am trying to teach my son is don’t limit yourself because you are wired differently you can do whatever you set your mind to. The unfortunate thing is that schools today really don’t see it this way and he gets bored easily and I find myself looking for new schools for him every 2-3 years. People really do need to change their thinking about this because kids in school are being made to think that there is something wrong w them and can get caught up in that mind set and end up self esteem and anxiety issues because they feel they are not normal. Telling your story and being able to relate and share this w my son is inspiring and goes along w how I am trying to show him that what society may see as normal is boring and he needs to not be limited by labels.

    • Heather says:

      Hi Christine,

      Sorry to butt in on your comment.. I just wanted to say that it’s great that you allow your son with ADHD to be himself. And you’re right that most schools really don’t understand that not everyone learns the same, or wants to be the same. Going through school with ADHD is very difficult, because what most people don’t understand is that it’s not just a distraction issue. What I’m really trying to say is that, as an adult with recently diagnosed ADHD I know first hand the power that disorder has to ruin lives. I know you don’t like labels and that’s fine, but please I urge you to read as much as you can about how your son’s brain works differently. It’s so much more that “oh, squirrel!” This article is fantastic, but it really isn’t that geared toward for people with ADHD.

      • Brenda Scott says:

        I agree, Heather.
        I didn’t really write this with ADHD diagnosed cases exactly in mind, but I think that much of what I have said can be considered, on a case-by-case basis. I’ve not been diagnosed but am likely ADHD, and these things help me. This was just meant to help others, but I know ADHD is very serious. Still, I think if it can be harnessed, it can be very powerful. We see it can be powerful in a negative and devastating way, but I think if researchers/doctors/teachers can help us harness it – perhaps that power can be used in a positive way. (I believe that it can be!) I think it has negative results in many cases now, because people with ADHD medically cannot conform to systems in place at the moment. But I just can’t see the people as having a problem. I see the system as having the problem, and I think that’s what I’m hearing from you as well; as long as schools don’t understand, students will suffer.

        It’s great to have adults who understand and can help and encourage – and celebrate the fact that we don’t all think in the same way.

        Really great points – I’m so glad you chimed in here, Heather!

    • Brenda Scott says:

      Hi, Christine.
      I completely agree with your statement: “don’t limit yourself because you are wired differently.” It can be extremely difficult, but finding work-arounds when you think differently can produce quite amazing results. Part of the struggle is that not all systems aid those who are different – in fact, quite the opposite. That’s just the first hurdle. Then there is learning yourself – how you learn, how you don’t learn, what distracts you, what helps you focus. A professional in this field could really help, but never let someone limit you (or in this case, your son). He’s lucky to have such a wonderful mother.

  17. Rhonda Weeks says:

    Simpleology!! It’s the coolest FREE online to-do (sort of) list ever. My favorite piece of it is indeed called the Dreamcatcher. I can text any idea that flits through my brain to my Simpleology page and when I start my day next, it is there for me to decide what to do with it. Simpleology also has great lists you can customize to throw whatever into a “To Read” or “To Experience” list. Plus there are new super-powerful tools for Processes so you can start and stop projects or plan projects to the nth degree, especially fun if you are like me and the planning is the fun part. I seldom actually feel the need to do my plans. I just love to plan them.

    BTW, I am not affiliated with Simpleology at all. I just have used it for the past several years and LOVE the HECK out of it.

  18. Brenda Scott says:

    Thank you for this great tip, Rhonda.
    Simpleology looks terrific. I’m going to have to try it.

  19. Catherine Chisnall says:

    Ugh, I just got that comment again. When I said I want to study everything, someone said you must choose between them if you want to make money… :/ Same old same old.

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