In a world full of distractions, staying focused while writing isn’t easy. Can you learn how to keep distractions at bay with a range of mental techniques?
So far in the Creating the Optimal Writing Space series, we’ve looked at how to stop the physical and virtual places where we write distracting us, but we’ve yet to cover potentially the most distracting thing of all: our thoughts. Let’s take a closer look now.
How do we shut distractions out when they’re inside our own heads? How do we create the optimal mental writing space, a place where our thoughts are focused on the task at hand—writing—and not trying to divert our attention to other things? Let’s look at what can cause distracting thoughts in the first place.
You know what it’s like: you have a spare minute and sit down to write, you set up your writing programme and prepare to dive back into your story world, and then...
You remember an errand you have to run, chores you have to do, work that needs finishing. Your writing session is tainted by the guilt of an uncompleted to-do list or interrupted by that nagging little voice at the back of your mind, telling you that you should be doing something else. Any focus you might have had before flickers away and dies. What to do about it? There are a few options.
Firstly, try scheduling your writing session at the very start of the day, preferably right after you wake up. In this still half-asleep state, many writers find that they’re more creative and focused. An additional benefit to writing first thing is getting the words down before other priorities, in work or in life, start to get in the way. Make writing your top priority, the first thing on your day’s to-do list.
If you can’t write at the start of the day or don’t want to, try organising your day so that you’re freed up for your writing session. Make a to-do list in the morning, prioritise the important items and make sure they’re ticked off before you sit down to write. With your to-do list completed, you can write guilt-free and direct all your focus onto the world at your fingertips.
Another way to bring focus to your mental writing space—your mind—is by imposing limits, particularly on your writing time. When you don’t have long to write, getting the words down instead of daydreaming or procrastinating suddenly becomes much more important.
Set a timer for a certain amount of time (e.g., 10, 20 or 30 minutes) and challenge yourself to write continuously during it, or to get as many words as you can written before the timer goes off. The Pomodoro Technique is particularly useful in this instance.
You can increase your motivation to focus and write by making these short writing bursts into a competition, either with yourself (challenge yourself to beat your best word count or meet a minimum word count each time) or with others. The last option is known as a word sprint. Both are especially helpful in forcing yourself to shut out distractions and concentrate solely on writing for a certain amount of time.
But what if you don’t want to force your mind to focus—what if you want it to happen naturally? This requires more time, practice and willpower, but ultimately can improve your overall ability to focus, not only on writing but in other areas of your life.
One way to do this is through practising meditation and/or mindfulness each day. After just two weeks of meditating for 30 minutes a day, you can see improvements in self-control and mood. Increased self-control is particularly useful for writers who struggle to focus and cut out procrastination. Mindfulness allows us to evaluate our thoughts without judgement—perfect for those who are crippled by self-doubt and a nasty, nagging inner editor when writing.
Both meditation and mindfulness require dedication and practice if they’re to yield their full advantages, but their positive effects on attention make them a skill well worth developing.
As mentioned in Distraction 1, writing first thing in the morning (sometimes known as writing your ‘morning pages’) is a good way to focus. Many writers, myself included, have found their productivity increase in writing and in other areas because they write on a morning, every day. Doing so not only creates good writing habits but also sets the tone for the day. By doing something straight away, instead of lounging around or lying in bed for an hour, you feel more focused, energised and motivated to do other productive things.
An Unhappy Body
Finally, your mental writing space might be cluttered by thoughts because your body isn’t functioning at its optimal capacity. This could be due to several factors, most notably in writers, dehydration, eating the wrong kinds of food, and lack of exercise.
I love tea as much as the next writer and my writing sessions are never without a cuppa or two, but if you’re doing sustained writing, try interspersing your caffeinated beverages with glasses of water. Keep your body and brain hydrated to stay alert, focused and attentive to your writing.
Besides drinking healthily, consider what food you’re using to fuel your writing sessions. Sweets, cakes and sugary snacks provide a burst of energy, yes, but they can result in hyperactivity. By its very nature, hyperactivity reduces your attention span, not to mention the lethargy that follows when the sugar wears off and you crash.
Therefore, if you want to focus on your writing and shut out distractions, try replacing sugary foods and drinks with healthier alternatives, like fruits (I love having a bowl of blueberries and strawberries next to me while writing), nuts, and seeds (pumpkin seeds are the future, I’m telling you).
Finally, keeping active can increase your focus as well, especially in the middle of a long writing session. Take out five minutes to stretch, move around, maybe do a short yoga routine to get that blood flowing again. Then sit down and write.
Enjoyed this series? Check out the Mind of the Writer and explore what makes the brain behind the words tick.