“A person who chases two rabbits catches neither.” ~ Confucious
I DON’T KNOW if my brain has become more scattered over time, or if it’s a result of too much digital communication and attempted multitasking, but it sure seems more challenging than ever to get focused when I sit down to write. Staying focused can also be a challenge, though less so.
On a bad day, a writing session might look something like this:
I sit down, open my laptop and my writing application or a document I’m working on. I write a few words and then think of something I should research. I switch to my browser and google it, then spend the next 15 minutes reading information on various websites. By this time I have more questions and maybe I’m linking to additional sites, having forgotten why I started my research in the first place. Blinking, I come up for air, realize what I’ve done and switch back to my writing app, read what I wrote, add a few more words, decide I’m thirsty and get up to get a glass of water. As I’m pouring the water, I remember I need to transfer a load of laundry to the dryer…and, well, you get the picture.
Eventually, I make my way back to my computer and manage to get focused, but I’ve wasted precious time in which I could have been a lot more productive.
Does this happen to you too?
Fortunately, I know that when I come prepared, there are strategies I can employ to get focused more quickly and then stay focused until my writing goals for that session are accomplished. And when I use these strategies on a regular basis, I am more productive as a writer. More than that, I feel happier and more fulfilled as a person because I am satisfying my inner calling and need to write.
As a quick aside before we get into strategies for focusing, one of the writers in my critique group pointed out to me that the creative process for writing isn’t always about being focused. And, of course, she’s right. Sometimes, you need to allow your mind to wander and explore ideas in order to travel unforeseen thought-paths and develop those ideas. In this case, what we really need is simply to show up, be present for our writing, and allow the mind to do what it does. Some of the strategies I share below will help you do just this — show up and be present. Use what works for you.
I’ve outlined my focus strategies into two sections: specific strategies and general principles.
- Have a writing topic and goal for that topic in mind when you start. Having a topic and goal is important for two reasons: the topic provides a target for your focus, and the goal guides you where to start and when to stop. Your topic can be anything from developing a character profile to an essay on garden composting. Your goal can be as simple as writing 200 words, completing a scene in your memoir, or writing an introductory chapter—it doesn’t matter. The point is to know what you’re going to write about and what you want to accomplish.
- Prepare for your writing session by turning off your cell phone. Also turn of notifications on your computer and put yourself in Do Not Disturb mode. If you’re easily distracted by external stimuli, use noise cancelling headphones to block out external sounds. Listen to a white noise or concentration-inducing soundtrack. I like Hemi-Sync’s Concentration. You can also try searching “music for concentration” on YouTube.
- Use an internet and social media blocking application to prevent going off track. I use Focus for Mac, which allows me to specify how long I want to focus, which applications and specific websites to block, etc. While reviewing focus applications is beyond the scope of this article, there are a many focus applications out there, and some have free or trial versions — just google “apps for focusing” to see what’s available.
- As you begin your writing session, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think of your topic. Imagine what you want to say. This pre-focusing ritual acts like priming the creative pump and gets your creative juices flowing.
- If you’re in the middle of a writing project, read the last few paragraphs you wrote during your previous session and then continue.
- If you’re starting a new writing project, immediately write down the first words that come to you. It doesn’t matter if you will end up keeping these words in your piece or not. Getting something—anything—on the page prevents you from sitting there staring at a blank page trying to think up the perfect first words. Forget about that. The perfect first words are usually the last thing you’ll write.
- While writing, if you think of something you need to research, use a placeholder for the information and keep writing. As an example, if you need to know the year an event happened in history instead of switching to your browser to research, simply use brackets and replacement text as a placeholder, i.e: “[year of event].” You can look it up later, during time you’ve set aside for research.
- If you’re feeling inner resistance, acknowledge the resistance and then ignore it. Resistance to creativity is innate to all of us. The more resistance you feel to writing, the more important it is that you write. Refuse to accept any rationalizations for not writing and, as the saying goes, “just do it.”
- Train your mind. Learning to focus is like training a muscle; it takes practice. Start with writing goals that take 15 minutes or less. Stay focused for that amount of time, then stop for the day or take a 5-minute break. When you practice dedicating time to concentrate on your work, you will become better at getting and staying focused.
- Find the best time of day to write. I have found that late in the afternoon and into the early evening works best for me. I’ve taken care of all my tasks and am ready to wind down physically. For some unknown reason, it’s easier for me to concentrate between 3 and 7 PM than it is between 10 AM and 2 PM. You may find that working in the wee hours of the morning or late at night serves you best.
- Visualize success. At any time along the way, when you doubt yourself or find that you’ve gotten distracted, simply return your attention to your topic. Visualize completing your goal and then get back to writing.
These are the principles and strategies I’ve found that work for me. Experiment to see which strategies are most effective for you, and then practice those regularly and religiously. After a while, they will become second nature and you’ll find yourself completing your writing goals in a shorter amount of time.
If you have a funny story about getting distracted or you’ve found other focus strategies that work for you, feel free to share in the comments.