~ Becoming a Focused Writer ~
Being able to focus is always an issue for a creative writer. No one is telling you what story world to invent nor how to get yourself in the seat, start writing, and then keep at it. Somehow, you have to shut out the world around you and zero in on the words boiling up inside and aching to pour out on to the page. That takes FOCUS.
Since my big word for January was FOCUS, I spent the month, thinking about what distracts me from writing, and what methodologies I might use to improve my concentration.
How I Write
I have been writing for many, many years. In those years, I have learned that there are some basics that I need in order to write anything. One is a comfortable chair and the computer at the right height. Otherwise, plain physical discomfort will do me in pretty quickly.
Another thing is having everything I need, or think I will need, within arm’s reach. I need my book research a click away – I use OneNote as my digital binder. I need paper and pen for jot notes. I need the little cards that I write my character’s names on and some of their favorite words.
But even with all these practical things in place, focusing on the writing to be done doesn’t always happen. I’d suddenly look at the clock and see that nothing was down on the page or what was there wasn’t what I intended to write. Not to mention, all the times I just wandered off to do something else.
My Writing Distractions
So why, when I am dedicated to what I was writing and highly motivated, does my mind wander? Being of a practical nature, I began by looking at the physical things that distracted me from writing. First, there were the sensory distractions. The ticking clock. The itchy sweater. A cold draft.
So focused on being focused, I set out to remove these sensory distractions. I put the clock in another room. I made sure to wear my most comfortable clothes. I found a blanket to wrap around my legs. These changes were easy to make and did help. But only a little.
Pressing Things First
I still had “To-Do” distractions. The email I was anxiously awaiting. The blog post I was late posting (uh- like this one). The prep for the courses I teach. Reading an interesting blog post or news article. All those things were right there on the computer and oh so easy to just click over and check. To fix these issues, I first tried doing the pressing things first – this got those done, but then I had no energy or writing time left.
Clearing the Screen
So next I tried a suggestion from Johanna Jast’s book Laser-Sharp Focus. I created a separate login identity on my computer—one that didn’t have access to all the files and emails. The interface was a lot cleaner, and the fact that I had to turn off the computer to sign into my main account was a good preventative against those easy slides into digital distractions.
Note: If you don’t want to mess with the computer, there are also programs that turn your computer into a writing area only. Here is a list of distraction freeing digital writing tools you might want to try. https://lifehacker.com/five-best-distraction-free-writing-tools-5689579
Clearing the Desk
In addition, I removed all the distractions littering my desk especially those that shouted at me about things I HAD to do. I removed the wall calendar, I tucked my bullet journal out of sight, and last, removed the standing file full of work waiting to be done. I added a plant and pretty pen holder and a display of my favorite rocks.
Setting the Time
I have been using the timer method as a way to both ignore distractions and get things done. The idea is to set a timer for the length of time you want to write and ignore everything else. I had already explored timers for fast drafting for NaNo. Now I tried to figure out the optimum time for me to write. I thought it would be 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. That’s the time frame I use when sprinting and going through social media.
But I am not sprinting every minute. Most days, I write steadily, but at my own pace, letting the story unfold naturally scene by scene. But with a timer dinging every 15 minutes, it seemed like instead of helping me focus in on the writing, the buzzer was just another annoying distraction pulling me away from moments when the writing was flowing along nicely.
So I tried longer times. Several research studies have indicated that for creative work longer times work better. Nathan Kleitman identified a natural 90 minute rhythm during the day that mirrored the 90 minute sleep cycle. A productivity app found that the highest performing workers focus for an average of 52 minutes and then take about a 17 minute break. I settled on an hour using a physical sand timer that didn’t ding at all.
Those Pesky Writing Problems
So I had a simplified writing site. A distraction-free screen. And a quiet, unobtrusive timer set for an hour. All these changes did help me focus better to the extent that I came back to my writing more quickly. But what I found was the writing issues that stopped me in the first place were still there and still making me lose focus. The more I forced myself to focus on solving a writing problem, the more I became unsettled and distracted. Then off I went to do something else, despite the timer and the distraction free screen and the hidden away task list.
So, I started noting down those times and places I became distracted. There were three main issues that caused me to stop writing.
- It was hard to get started on a new scene or chapter or blog post.
- I couldn’t think of the perfect word or a way to say what I was thinking or what I was picturing or the right order in which to say it.
- My writing was going in the wrong direction for my storyline.
But how to address these issues? I started searching for more focus tips and I discovered FLOW…
Flow and focus go together. Flow is defined by researchers as a mental state in which time, distractions, and everything around you fall away and all your creative energy is focused on the task. When you are in a state of flow, you are actually using your brain differently. The prefrontal part of the brain that controls critical thinking is deactivated and our sense of self lessens. Instead, norepinephrine and dopamine flood our bodies and time slows, impulse control decreases, and our performance becomes more fluid and creative.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow (1990) characterizes this feeling as a time when you are so engrossed in an activity nothing else matters. My goodness. That sounds exactly how I feel when the writing is going great. (Also when I am doing photography or making a drawing or singing a song). So how do I make that happen all the time?
Csikszentmihalyi says that setting the stage for flow to happen requires:
- A clear end goal
- Immediate self-feedback that you are moving toward that goal
- The task is challenging, but within your capabilities
- No worry about failing
- You are happy doing it.
Suddenly, my focus problem became clear. I lost focus writing when one of the above five things wasn’t happening.
- My end goal (or my character’s end goal) for the scene/chapter/writing piece wasn’t spelled out enough.
- I had lost track of what I was writing so I wasn’t getting positive self-feedback that I was doing well.
- I didn’t yet have the writing skills need to fix that storyline or paragraph or sentence.
- I was on a tight schedule, or I felt my writing had to be perfect so I was afraid of failure.
- What I was working on wasn’t what I wanted to be writing at that time. I had another idea or another task to do that I was drawn to more.
Putting Flow Into Practice
When I began my investigation into focus at the beginning of January, I thought I would find some simple technique that would increase my ability to write more effectively and smoothly. What I learned is that it is impossible to eliminate all distractions, and that’s okay. When you are in the flow, you can ignore most of them. That when you start to get distracted, re-examine what you were just working on. What can you do to solve the problem?
Here’s what I came up with.
- Stuck on a start? Write a place holder sentence at the start of a difficult scene or chapter to be revised later, that simply states who, where and when.
- Need positive feedback? Note down what I have accomplished – word count, scenes completed, etc.
- Don’t have the skill yet? Make a note to find a writing blog or workshop or critique partner to help me improve my writing and leave that spot a blank or highlighted to come back to.
- Face the fact that sometimes the flow just doesn’t happen. Then it is time to go do something else. But the important thing is to come back and dive into that writing again.
PS – I love my new distraction-free writing zone too.
I love to hear from my followers.
What distracts you from writing or some other favorite creative pursuit?
6 thoughts on “How I Learned to Focus”
Wow I learned about the concept Flow before, but I’ve never explicitly applied its principles to my writing. So I liked how you dissected it! Like you, I’ve been looking for methods to remove distractions (e.g. uninstalling all game apps and most social media apps). But I find that removing distractions only helps me to some extent. Over time, I just started slipping back into old habits, and I began spending more time on the social media I still had access to. Maybe my problem is not merely because I’m distracted, but because I need to have clearer goals, more immediate feedback, etc. But again, sometimes we’re writing something we don’t enjoy (for instance, a scene that isn’t as exciting as some of the others), so it’s okay to have non-Flow moments. Thank you! Your post has given me much to think about. 😊
Good post, Zara. Your struggle is common for a lot of writers, in one degree or another.
I know many of my writer friends say the same thing happens when they write. Sometimes it seems like magic when it happens. No better feeling in the world. Do you have suggestions for keeping in the flow?
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I do have one suggestion. If you are struggling with a section and feel the muse pointing to a different section, follow the muse. Write the easier section or sections, eventually you will work the difficulty out. I actually think writing the last chapter first makes a fair amount of sense, because then you know where you are going with the story.