Do you struggle to focus during your writing sessions? Here are two techniques you can try to improve your attention span and increase your productivity.
In the modern world, finding time to sit down and write can be infuriatingly difficult. When we actually get our bums into the seats, an even greater nemesis rears its ugly head: distraction. How can we ward off the beast and find focus before writing?
I do it through the two ‘M’s: meditation and mindfulness.
Bear with me here. Put aside any preconceptions you have about meditation and mindfulness while you read and you’ll find that they’re practices that can improve your life (and your brain) in more ways than one. Writing is just the beginning.
What Is Meditation?
There are various techniques and types of meditation, but at the core of them is a simple goal: to self-regulate the mind and body.
Concentrative meditation involves focusing attention on something specific, like your breathing or an object. When you notice your attention wandering, you return it to the focus of the meditation, without rebuking yourself for the lapse.
It can be difficult for beginners to stay focused during meditations, but practice makes this self-regulation of the mind much easier.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness involves observing your thoughts, feelings and experiences in the present, without judging them as good or bad. You’re open to the moment, living in the moment. Because you’re not focusing on the past or future, you find yourself free to observe what’s happening around you, which brings with it a new sense of awareness and freedom.
The benefits that go hand-in-hand with meditation and mindfulness are myriad, from the mental, such as improvements in well-being, to the physical, such as pain management, but let’s focus on those relevant to writing.
Even practising meditation for a short period can yield benefits for writers. One study found that, when meditating five days a week, 30 minutes each time, there were improvements in self-control and mood after just two weeks.
Increased self-control is an obvious advantage for writers, particularly those who struggle to sit down, write and stay focused. Having a more balanced or positive mood also helps writers—how many times have you blown off a writing session because you didn’t feel like it?
Another benefit to meditation is learning to shut out distracting thoughts. However, an even greater advantage for a writer is being able to realise when your thoughts are wandering sooner. Only once you learn to recognise when your mind drifts can you correct it.
Practising mindfulness has several benefits for writers. When self-doubt and the scornful whisperings of your inner editor loom, the desire to write shrivels up and dies.
However, observing your thoughts without judging them (i.e., mindfulness) can reduce the anxiety that stems from those bouts of the Writer Blues—perfect for those occasions when you’re feeling self-conscious or critical of your writing.
Story time: One day my lecturer asked the class to build a complicated seraph paper airplane while practising mindfulness. I couldn’t build the thing for the life of me, while everyone around me found it fairly easy. Had I not been non-judgemental towards my thoughts, I would have been horribly embarrassed, but the mindfulness provided a buffer to anxiety. It works for writing too.
Try It Yourself
So now that we’re clear on how great meditation is for writers, when should we meditate, how long should we do it for, and how exactly do we meditate?
The most obvious time for writers to meditate is just before writing. It clears the mind, focuses the attention and calms the body, which then leads to a far more productive session than jumping straight into writing with an unfocused, easily distracted mind. However, the benefits can still be felt when meditating at other times, such as before going to bed, on a morning or after exercise.
How long should we meditate for? That depends on whether or not you’re a beginner and how much time you have available. If you’re new to meditation, start with shorter sessions (like 5-10 minutes), since focusing the mind on one thing for very long can prove difficult. As you become more experienced with meditation, lengthen your sessions to a time that feels comfortable to you.
Another factor to consider, if you’re meditating before your writing session, is how much time you have available. If you only have an hour a day to write, then a longer meditation session will take a big chunk out of that. Should you find yourself limited for time, either meditate for a shorter period before writing or have a longer session at another point in the day (or both!).
What exactly do you do during meditation? I favour a simple breathing meditation myself, which involves directing the attention towards the breath, as it flows naturally in and out of the nostrils. When thoughts creep into your mind, simply return your attention to your breathing. You can find more information on this type of meditation here.
When’s the best time to practice mindfulness? Again, just before a writing session is ideal as it focuses you, ready for churning out those words. However, as shown in my paper plane example, you can practice mindfulness at any time. Just focus on the moment, on what you’re experiencing, without judging it as good or bad.
As with meditation, practice mindfulness for as long as you feel comfortable with and/or have time for. The added benefit to mindfulness is that you can practice it while doing other things, so you don’t have to carve out time to sit down and focus solely upon it (though you can do if you want to).
What exactly is being ‘mindful’? It’s paying attention to your experiences in the present. If you’re building a paper plane, for example, focus on the motion of your hands and the feel of the paper, observe your thoughts as they come and go, but don’t judge them. No feeling inadequate, self-conscious, embarrassed or guilty. Just awareness.
Enjoyed this post? Check out the Mind of the Writer and explore what makes the brain behind the words tick.