Improve Your Focus: Try the Writer’s Magic Bowl

Do you have trouble maintaining your focus while writing? Are you easily distracted by things around you? Do you get up and down to get drinks or snacks? Do you wander over to email or social media? Do you stare out the window every few minutes? I do.

All of these can quickly become built-in habits that are hard to break.

There are many ways writers can improve their focus on writing and break bad habits. You can use timers, turn off notifications, or write on a cleared screen. All of these are great methods. But sometimes those are not enough. You just have to break the habit. And a magic bowl might be the perfect way to do that.

What is a Magic Bowl?

James Clear in Atomic Habits suggests that one of the keys for changing a bad habit is to make the new habit replacing it more attractive. Habits according to him are dopamine-driven feedback loops. Anticipation of a reward will get us to change our habitual pattern, and we will get the same gush of good feeling.

He also suggests that the reward be simple and easy. One of the ideas he suggests is to take a jar and put a paper clip in every time you do not succumb to whatever habit you want to change and instead follow through on your new habit. Over time the jar will fill, and you will gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. For example, every time you start to get up and get a snack and you DON’T, you put a paper clip in the jar and then continue on writing.

However, a jar and paperclips are boring and small, and I found after trying this method for a while that I would forget to add the paperclip and eventually the old habit would come back.

That’s when I decided to design my own Magic Bowl. I wanted something that would be easy to see my accomplishments, that was beautiful to look at, and most importantly made a lovely reinforcing sound. After all, we are more likely to do something if it pleasures our senses.

Create Your Magic Bowl

Would you like to try the Magic Bowl trick? Here’s how to make one. You will need a container and some counters. Begin by looking around for a beautiful jar. It doesn’t have to be large. Clear or colored glass is a good choice because it allows you to see your success build up. It also makes a nice sound when you drop in carefully selected counters. Ceramic or metal are other good picks. I chose a low-sided brass incense holder that sits on my desk. I can look down and see my counters inside, and it makes a ringing sound when I drop in my glass beads.

For your counters, select small, attractive objects about an inch in diameter. Do you have a collection of stones or seashells? Natural objects that have a special meaning or unique texture will increase the pleasure of changing your habit. But other objects can work just as well. Perhaps you have a button collection or some colorful marbles. Or try metal wingnuts, LEGO blocks, metal bottle caps, tiny plastic figurines, or whatever strikes your fancy or matches the theme of your writing. The important thing is that they are more visible than paper clips and that the counters make a great sound when dropped into your chosen container.

How to Use Your Magic Jar

Now you are ready to change your writing practice and improve your ability to stay focused. Choose the distraction you want to eliminate and add a counter every time you resist that behavior. Slowly the jar will fill, and you will be able to admire it and know that you are conquering your selected habit.

Decide how long you will fill the jar. It could be done each day or for a week or until the entire writing project is completed. The exciting moment comes when you empty out the jar and feel the satisfaction of knowing you have increased your ability to focus and either broken a bad habit or created a good one.


To learn more about the relationship between maintaining focus and writing creatively see my top-selling writing guide: Fast Draft Your Manuscript And Get It Done Now


What do you do to stay on task?

Organize and De-Clutter Your Writing Zone

~ Make it Beautiful !

Organizing is something you do before you do something, so when you do it, it is not all mixed up. ~ A.A. Milne


Oranize and de-clutter your writing zone.

 

Last month, while pondering my Big Word FOCUS, I learned that maintaining one’s focus on one’s writing is a challenge that requires you to become immersed in the creative process. While passion and motivation are high on the list for getting into that state of flow, it is helpful to be in a stress-free, distraction-free writing zone.

So, it seemed serendipitous that the next Big Word I drew was ORGANIZE. I don’t know about you, but while I consider myself to be a fairly organized person, I can quickly build up piles of papers that need attention. I am also prone to saving magazines with writing articles I like, and to printing out helpful writing tips and to collecting research facts for the books I am writing. Then there are all my promo materials and calendars and journals. Add to that all my writing materials – pencils, pens, rulers, stapler, and other stationery supplies, and honestly, my writing zone was a mess. All that mess hovered around my writing area and distracted me before I even started to write.

Note: Although, I am just focusing on my writing environment, I am not alone in struggling with cluttered spaces. According to the blog, SimplyOrderly, the average American spends almost 12 days per year, looking for things we own but can’t find. As a writer working to deadline, I cannot afford to lose time searching for papers or waste a half-hour reading an interesting, but irrelevant to my writing, article. But even more importantly, I cannot lose time writing because I am distracted or stressed.

Organizing Reduces Stress

Apparently, cluttered spaces make people feel trapped and anxious and affect our stress levels. For example, researchers at DePaul University found that people who lived in cluttered homes showed more general dissatisfaction and frustration. A 2010 study by Saxbe and Repetti found that women who thought their homes cluttered had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

When I looked around at the papers littering my desk and those poking out of the file box sitting next to my desk, and then at the calendar I could see out of the corner of my eye with all those looming deadlines, I knew just how those women felt.

Every item was pulling my attention away from my creative work, scattering my thinking, and keeping me stressed.  I could feel myself thinking: “Maybe I should stop writing my novel and get that blog post done.” Or “Maybe I should check my calendar to see what is due next week.” No wonder I was having trouble focusing on my novel and finding that all important state of flow.

Setting Out to Organize and De-Clutter a Writing Zone

So to reduce my stress and make myself not only happier but also more productive, I set about creating a distraction and clutter-free zone around my computer where I write.

The idea was not to get rid of all those important papers or journals or calendars. That would be impossible and foolhardy. Instead, I kept my task limited. My goal was to make the area that I could see while writing distraction-free. So I moved my paper piles, magazines, and research notes to storage containers located on shelving behind me where I couldn’t see them while writing, but where they were near at hand for when I needed them outside my dedicated creative writing time.

Using the SORT System to Organize and De-ClutterSORT to Succeed by Darla DeMorrow

In order to accomplish this task, I needed a simple organizing method. There are many approaches to organizing clutter. I looked at a number of blogs and books and settled on using Darla DeMorrow’s simple and logical SORT system (Organizing Your Home With Sort and Succeed). Her very simple advice, in the long run, is the easiest to follow.

The key to her system is having you write down exactly what you plan to accomplish in the time you allot. Having a time frame and a goal keeps you from getting lost in reading an old magazine or wandering off with an item and then ending up reorganizing something else.

1. First, I Sorted my desk zone clutter.

2. Second, I Organized it using various containers and drawers.

3. Next, I Removed and Recycled items that were unnecessary (yes, there were some!).

4. Finally, I Tweaked the space so it became clean and beautiful for me to look at.

How I Organized

Here is some of what I did to give you an example. I sorted through all my excessive pens and pencils and kept only few on my desk. I moved the open file boxes to the counter behind me, and I filed my to-do materials and articles and promo items in those boxes so they were no longer lying in piles. Next, I put my journals and notebooks on shelves under my desk where I can pull them out quickly, but where they are not staring me in the face. I turned my calendar so it faces away, but is easily turned around when I need to see the date, and hung a restful picture on the back. I have to say, no longer having red-marked days staring me in the face while writing has lowered my stress level tremendously.

To make the space welcoming, I cleared away the piles of books blocking my view out the window, added a cactus garden and an ammonite fossil shell, and set out a few of my favorite rocks that I like to hold when thinking.

Now when I sit down to write every morning, all I see is the computer, my beautiful and inspiring objects, and the view through the window. I love it.

 

Making It Work

But it is not enough to just SORT. To succeed, you also have to maintain that space. Now that I have my stress-free writing area, I need to keep it that way. That takes resolve. So far, I have managed it. Every evening before I turn off the office lights, I make sure my writing zone is clear and ready for me in the morning. Now my goal is to keep it that way all year long.

My Organized and De-cluttered DeskReady and Waiting


What do you see when you sit down to write?

How could you make it less distracting and more conducive to fostering your focus and creativity?

How I Learned to Focus

~ 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.

ZARA-West-BIG-Word-FOCUS

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

Zara West BIG words - FocusClearing 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.

  1. It was hard to get started on a new scene or chapter or blog post.
  2. 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.
  3. My writing was going in the wrong direction for my storyline.

Not Focus…Flow

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:

  1. A clear end goal
  2. Immediate self-feedback that you are moving toward that goal
  3. The task is challenging, but within your capabilities
  4. No worry about failing
  5. 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.

  1. My end goal (or my character’s end goal) for the scene/chapter/writing piece wasn’t spelled out enough.
  2. I had lost track of what I was writing so I wasn’t getting positive self-feedback that I was doing well.
  3. I didn’t yet have the writing skills need to fix that storyline or paragraph or sentence.
  4. I was on a tight schedule, or I felt my writing had to be perfect so I was afraid of failure.
  5. 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.

Zara West's BIG Words - FocusPutting 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Need positive feedback? Note down what I have accomplished – word count, scenes completed, etc.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

 

Fifteen Minutes Writing – The Book Factory Method

~ Life in Fifteen Minutes ~

Do you know how much time you spend on daily activities like reading e-mail and perusing Facebook? Do you struggle to reach your daily word count? I know that I do.

A while back, I took a workshop with USA best-selling author Kerri Nelson, which she has recently published in book form: The Book Factory Method: Your Guide to Producing Multiple Novels in One Year.

Fifteen Minutes CountThe Book Factory by Kerri Nelson Reviewed by Zara West

Kerri makes the point that in the scheme of things fifteen minutes is not very much of one’s time. In fifteen minutes, we can accomplish tasks like wash the dishes or fold the laundry. Why not spend fifteen minutes writing too?

In The Book Factory Method, Kerri explains how thinking in fifteen-minute time blocks is a sneaky way to find time to write.

Where are Those Fifteen Minutes Hiding?

Finding fifteen minutes is a lot less daunting than finding an hour or three for writing. Kerri suggests analyzing how you spend every fifteen-minute block of your work day and searching out those spaces where you can sit down to write.

Taking her advice, I kept track of how I spent my time over a three-day period (Here’s a 15 incredible minutes you can use to track your day) and discovered she was right.

Sure, I had all my daily tasks—like cleaning, washing, cooking, going to work, working, and so on. But there were also large blocks of time spent lost on Facebook and answering e-mail, time spent straightening my writing zone and getting ready to write, and time spent on rereading what I had already written—time that could be better spent just plain writing. In fact, I actually found three fifteen-minute blocks that could be better spent writing everyday.

Using Those Fifteen Minutes Effectively

Once you have your slots, Kerri suggests you get a timer. Using a timer and shutting down e-mail and the Internet is essential for this to work.

A note on timers: The timer I like the most is Hourglass. But I have also used my phone timer and an old-fashioned cooking timer just as effectively.

Now you are ready

  • Sit down.
  • Set the timer.
  • Start writing.
  • Do not stop till that timer dings.

Give it a Try

If you fast draft, you can actually produce quite a few words on the page in fifteen minutes, and in Kerri’s case, those dedicated fifteen minutes has produced a passel of published books. Will this work for everyone? I have no idea. But it worked for me.

I quickly found that sitting down and fast drafting (Kerri makes a particular point about applying this method only to new writing, not revision or editing) even for as little as fifteen minutes a day put words on the page for me.  Working with the time limit also trained me to be more focused. Knowing I was being times, I learned to ignore distractions. After all, there are very few things you can’t let slide for a few minutes.

In addition to the fifteen-minute writing method, Kerri provides many hints and helps for becoming more productive. She examines goal setting, motivation, and some writerly tricks for plotting (she’s a pantser), writing pitches and queries, and maintaining one’s physical and mental health as a writer. I strongly recommend The Book Factory Method for anyone who wants to become a more productive writer.


What method do you use to find writing time?

I love hearing from my readers!

Writing Visionary Goals

~ Why I Start with Visionary Goals ~

In my last post, I talked about how I set up my writing journal. In this post I will explain how I set my visionary goals.

Designing Visionary Goals

When designing goals, there are three things we are advised that make a good goal. The first is it should be specific with a clear definition and a recorded start and end time. Second, the goal should be measurable so you know if you achieved it. Third, the goal needs to be achievable i.e. it is something you have the skills or can get the skills to accomplish. A visionary goal is different. It encompasses something we feel deeply about- something that may not be measurable.


Why Visionary Goals?Tips and tricks for keeping a journal by Zara West

As an educator, I have written and been guided by thousands of measurable goals and objectives. So why do I start off my writing journal with my rather nebulous five-year visionary goals?

I do so because while being practical is a sure way to get work done, they do not inspire. And if there is something a writer needs to have tucked into their psyche, it is inspiration.

So this year, I have set myself the following five-year goals.

  1. Write more books and stories from my heart
  2. Discover readers who love my books
  3. Be happy writing and not feel stressed

As you can see these are definitely not measurable objectives nor well-defined. I don’t specify a set number of books and stories. I don’t name the genre or the topics, and five years is pretty broad range in terms of a time-frame.

These are goals that come from my hopes and dreams. I talk about love, heart, and happiness– very general words that we can all argue about. What does it mean for a reader to love a book? What does happiness feel like to a writer? What is a story from the heart?

Working with Visionary Goals

Despite their nebulousness, these are definitely goals I want to attain. What writer doesn’t want to keep writing more and more wonderful books and stories? What writer doesn’t want their stories read by appreciative readers? Why write at all if it makes you feel stressed and unhappy?

However, just because these are visionary, doesn’t mean that we can’t use them to delineate our writing career path.


Turning Visionary Goals into Measurable Ones

So the next step is to take each visionary goal and place it in this sentence, and voila, you will have a nicely packaged measurable goal to guide you – but one that has heart at its core.

In order to _________________ (visionary goal), I will ______________ (your activity) for ____________ (time-frame).

An example:

In order to write more heartfelt books, I will write at least 2 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Now that is definitely something that will keep me on track, but also incorporates my dream of writing more stories from my heart.

I also use my visionary goals to come up with a slogan to hang over my computer. Here is this year’s.

Work hard. Work happy. Work inspired.


From Visionary Goals to Success

Setting goals is key to feeling successful. When you can track your progress, when you can count the number of words or pages written, and the number of stories sent out into the world, you know you have accomplished something. But if that leaves you stressed or you do not love what you have written, then it is all for nothing.

That is why for me starting with visionary goals is more fulfilling and, in the long run, leaves me happier as a writer.


Do you set visionary or practical goals for yourself?

How do you use them?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.


 

My Writing Journal – Tips and Tricks

~ Start with a Journal ~

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to review what one has accomplished and to look forward to what might be one’s goals for the new year. A journal is a great place to start.


My JournalZara West journal tricks and tips

There are many different ways to do this. Since I am a long time journaler, I like to begin the year by starting a new journal (made of recycled paper, of course) and listing my goals and plans at the front.

Throughout the year, I use the journal to jot notes about my current writing projects and accomplishments, my ad campaigns, and character and plot development for my current writing projects.


Making My Journal Useful

Using a trick I learned from bullet journaling, I number the pages so I can create an index at the back. To create the index, I start on the last page and work backwards. That way I can quickly find the information I need.

journal-indexAnother trick I use is to fold over the upper right-hand corner for each new writing project. I color-code the tab to make it easy to find. I also use sticky notes to mark the place I am at in the journal.

Dating everything and recording everything in time order is also journal-tabimportant. Not only does this show me what progress I am making, but later if I am having trouble finding a data file or remembering when I did something I can check my journal.

I Don’t Care How My Journal Looks

What I don’t do is try to make the journal pretty. Time is limited, and I want to spend as much of it as I can on writing. For me, the important thing is to get the information recorded in whatever way I can.

So while I occasionally mark a page with highlight markers, I do not add drawings or journal-indexfancy colors unless I am sketching something to help me picture something in my writing such as a building, an interior, or a map.

I don’t worry about my handwriting. As long as it is legible, that’s all that matters. I cross out, insert, and don’t worry if I am not writing on the lines. It is my journal, and no one else needs to see it.


Advantages of a Handwritten Journal

Now, you are probably wondering why, with all the digital organizers out there, anyone would resort to handwritten notes? I do so for two reasons:

  1. It is much faster to scribble something down on the pad next to my computer or flip through the pages when I am in middle of writing than it is to open a new document, save it, and then find it again.
  2. At the end of December I can look back and have a cohesive picture of my writing year. I can see my struggles and my successes. From there I can easily transfer any important information or knowledge to my computer files or use it to plan my next year’s writing. To make it easy, I often just take a photograph of an important page or drawing and save that as a jpg file.

Learn more

Find more more about my journaling see: Zara West’s Writing Journal

I also offer Bullet Journal Workshops for Readers and Writers. I do not have one currently scheduled, but if you are interested, contact me and I can set one up. For an individual, the cost is $15 for a two-week totally online workshop. You will learn how to set up and organize your journal and make it uniquely your own.


Do you keep a journal? Is it handwritten or digital?

Do you have any tips for keeping a journal?

I love to hear from my readers and fellow writers.

NaNoWri starts Tomorrow and I Can’t Wait.

Ready. Set. Go.

Got my plot. Got my characters. Got my GMC outline. Got my alarm set. Everything appears ready for me to dive in and write my first 2000 words (Technically you need to write 1533 a day, but I aim for 2000 words a day – that way I get ahead a bit for the days I can’t write for some reason or other.)

Problem is I also have a dentist appointment, a sister visiting from Scotland, the last broccoli and chard to harvest from the garden, and pizza night with the whole family. Not to mention constant interruptions from children, husband, and telephones. I don’t want to hear one more political robot, please!

See that’s one of the problems with being a writer. You do everything to get into the flow and then BAM something happens to break the flow and if you haven’t reached your word total, you’re cooked. Or at least I am.

Here are somethings I do to get back into the flow.

  1. Do a 1 mile walk, either outside or inside (I use Walk at Home with Leslie Samsome). As I walk I start to think myself back into the story.
  2. I type some gibberish until the flow starts up. It’s a fast draft. Pleanty will be cut before it’s done.
  3. I reread the last paragraph I wrote (no more than that or I get into edit mode)
  4. I reread my outline – especially the dilemma.
  5. I do a journal entry in the POV character’s voice about what they think should happen next.
  6. I give up and promise to write more words the next day by getting up earlier.

Anyone have any other suggestions on how deal with interruptions while fast drafting?

Leave a comment or two!