How To Avoid Rabbit Trails

How To Avoid Rabbit Trails
This post was previously published. It has been updated.

We’ve all been there: we spend hours working on things, only to look at our lists to find we didn’t do anything on them. Busy, but not planned. I call these rabbit trails. I don’t go down rabbit trails very often, but when I do, I can count on losing at least an hour of productive time. Today we will look at how to spot them and what to do when you’re on one.

What is a Rabbit Trail?

A rabbit trail is a wandering path that we follow that leads us away from where we originally wanted to go. Why rabbit trails? Our canine household member is a hound, and hounds will follow rabbits for hours, dodging left, right, over, under, crossing and re-crossing. And in my particular hound’s case, without ever gaining the rabbit.

Example: a few evenings ago I was looking for a how-to article on how to bind the edges of some place mats I wanted to make. The search turned up an article that caught my eye: how to make fish-tail valances. I clicked on that, then saw the link on how to make crocheted cat toys. And on and on. Two hours later I emerged from the web, bleary eyed, and still without the information I had originally wanted.

How To Avoid Rabbit Trails

The method I use to keep from rabbit trailing very often is direct and straightforward.

1. Recognize What A Rabbit Trail Looks Like

Figure out your rabbit trails. The online type is easy to picture, but there are others.

By examining those times when you know you have been busy, but not doing the stuff you set out to do, you will learn to recognize rabbit trails.

I can do this at home quite often: I am cleaning something, and I spy something to put away, so I take it where it belongs, only to see something else that needs attention. A few hours later and I return to where I started, to see the cleaning supplies waiting from the original project.

2. Figure Out What Triggers The Start of the Trail

Once you know what type of trails you follow, figure out what gets them started. It might be a particular action, website or place.

For me, online “how-to” sites will start me off, as well as anything that takes me physically away from what I am doing.

3. Figure Out Alternative Actions

Once you know how they start, you can figure out how to replace that first step for something else.

Knowing that “how-to” websites are distracting, I tell myself I can look at one page, and anything that looks interesting on a site gets clicked into a new tab, at which point those single articles will get flagged for future reading.

At home, anything that takes me physically away from what I am doing is sure to cause a rabbit trail. I fix this in two ways: I have a pad of paper to jot down the thoughts I want to follow up on (example: check laundry detergent level); and I have a place to put physical things that need to be dealt with (example: things that need to be put away elsewhere are collected in a basket near the steps).

By recognizing what will push me into distracted activities and taking steps, I have a much better shot at being productive with the things I meant to do.