According to psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, our fast-paced world filled with hundreds of immediate demands on our time and attention can cause an inability to focus on a single task or attention deficit trait. In Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, the authors present tools to help people focus and work.
Last week I wrote about how writers can tame the frenzy or calm our emotions in order to focus on a task. Today I’m tackling the second tool: sustain attention.
What it is: The ability to sift through environmental noise, create priorities, and focus on main task.
What it looks like for writers: Most writers juggle more than one writing assignment at a time. For each assignment, we research, write, revise, edit and repeat. Writers who publish must also query, submit, follow-up, connect, and promote. Thanks to the recent social media explosion, most of us also blog, tweet, pin, post on Facebook, and more. Add to all of this the other stuff we do in life (exercise, eat, connect, raise families, volunteer) as well as the additional jobs we do for money until the books take off—well, no wonder it’s hard to sustain attention! In the midst of all of this—most of which swirls around in our head or on our to-do list—we need to choose a single task and focus on it for a sustained amount of time. In other words, we need to put our butt in the chair and write. But how do we sift through all the tasks to do this?
How to sustain attention: Over many years of writing professionally, coaching writers, and reading about the practice of writing, I believe that writers need to create a life that supports sustained attention. Part of this is creating the frenzy-free life I described last week. And part of this is creating the space necessary to practice sustained attention. Here is a four-step process that will help you do just that:
Step 1: Create a writing environment. In order to practice sustained attention, we need to create the environment where sustained attention is possible. This means eliminating the distractions that regularly pull our focus from writing—like phone calls, texts, emails, social media, children, dogs, piles of paper, and so forth. It also means adding the elements that make writing work for us—like soft music, white noise, or a clean office. So, the successful writer will create a place—either at home or in a public environment—where they are able to focus on their project. For some writers that will mean renting an office, working at the library, or using one of those programs that turn off all access to the Internet.
Action step: Review your most productive writing times: what about the writing environment made that possible? How can you recreate that environment on a regular basis?
Step 2: Create priorities and schedule tasks. Often my frenzy comes from having tasks to do but no time scheduled to complete them. Once I sort through everything I could do, choose the few things I must do, and then schedule time to complete the tasks, I calm down and am able to focus. I’ve often quoted the research for you that connects scheduling tasks to completing them—when we know when, where, and how we will complete a task, we get it done.
Action step: Create a to-do list. Sort through and choose your priorities—what must get done this week? Once you know what you need to do, schedule it into the calendar. As you do so, keep in mind your own rhythms; schedule time to write at your peak writing times.
Step 3: Focus and write. Once we have our tasks scheduled, we can simply do what the rest of the world does: show up and work. No problem, right? Not so much. I’m often plagued by brain drama when I’m trying to write. Random thoughts fly through my brain—should I be feeding my kids more vegetables, I need to check that fact, I wonder if I should query the editor of that magazine, and on it goes. Here’s the thing: focusing takes practice. We are conditioned to be distracted. As you put this plan into practice, you will be tempted to stop whatever it is you are doing and move to another task. Don’t! Gently remind yourself that you have time scheduled to do all of the things you’re worrying about and then turn back to your writing. You might have to do this fifty times the first day, but it will get better.
Step 4: Review and Repeat. Systems work best when we tweak them to fit our needs. As you work to implement this process, check your progress once a week and change your system as necessary. For example, you might find that you work better when you can have a little distraction—such as the white noise of a coffee shop. Make that change and see how it goes. Keep tweaking until you reach optimum productivity levels!
Bonus Tip: Life practice. I’ve discovered that practicing sustained attention (mindfulness) in other parts of my life helps me when I write. I know how to sustain attention when I write because I did it while making soup. Group classes like yoga or painting are good ways to practice sustained attention with others. But you can do this on your own. Take any task you do that requires attention and pay attention while you do it. Yup, that means when you’re folding towels, fold towels—don’t add watching television and talking on the phone to the mix. See if practicing sustained attention improves your ability to focus on your writing!
Your turn: how do you clear distractions and focus? Have you found tools or practices that help you? Share below!