Ways to stay focused when you’re writing

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Being more focused as a writer means you’ll be able to finish your work faster and with far less angst. Here’s how you can improve your focus…

How do you stay focused when you’re writing?

There are some basic moves. Turn off your email, for a start. You can collect it manually when you’ve finished writing. Put on a pair of large and really ugly headphones. This will help keep coworkers and even family at bay. Have a noisy timer operating. This will be a constant reminder to yourself that your time is limited and as soon as the bell dings you will be either taking a break or moving on to another task.

But sometimes, these “external actions” — heck, let’s just call them tricks — won’t be enough. In addition to employing them, you’ll also need to deal with the distracting thoughts ricocheting through your own mind. How do you accomplish that?

From one of my clients, I recently learned about Transactional Analysis (TA). This psychological theory, developed in the 1950s, was the brainchild of Eric Berne (1910-1970), who was a Canadian-born psychiatrist. Widely seen as a way of improving communications — and enjoying a small renaissance now — TA focuses on the way we relate with ourselves and with others. TA also holds that:

  • we all have a right to be in the world and be accepted, and,
  • people can change.

Transactional Analysis observes the concepts of “reaching back”– obsessive thinking of future events — and “after burn” — obsessive reflection on past ones —that can steal the present moment if we aren’t vigilant. And here’s the deal about writing: You need to be firmly established in the present to be able to do it.

But here’s what many writers do instead: They start fretting about their finished product. Will this piece of writing be good enough to please their boss and their readers? And if they’re working on a long-form project, like a book or a thesis, they may really let their thoughts run away with them: What if the thesis “makes” or “demolishes” their career? (One thought is positive and the other negative but both of them are irrelevant to the task of writing and both can derail a writer.) For a book writer, the speculation may run along the lines of the difficulty of finding an agent/publisher or the joy of producing a New York Times bestseller. (Again, one positive, one negative but both irrelevant to writing.)

When you are writing, you need to write. (Sounds obvious, I know, but few of us are able to do it.) We should not be speculating about what’s going to happen to our finished products. Here is how to help control what meditators call our “monkey minds”:

Don’t try to suppress your thoughts. This only leads to what’s popularly known as the white bear problem. Also described as ‘ironic process theory,’ this is a psychological principle suggesting that the more we deliberately try to suppress thoughts, the more likely they are to emerge. The popular title for the theory came from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1863 travel book, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions in which he observed, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Researchers have shown that Dostoevsky had it right: the more we try to suppress thoughts, the more we think of them. So, instead of suppressing, postpone. Tell yourself: “I’m writing right now. These thoughts about how to improve my writing [or to edit my writing, or to market my writing] will be more helpful later, when I’m actually doing those tasks.”

Pay attention to your breathing. I have a grudging respect for writer’s apnea because I suffer from it myself. Whenever I concentrate really hard on something and become fully engaged in it, I frequently forget to breathe. My Pilates teacher is constantly saying to me, “Remember to breathe, Daphne.” My husband often says the same thing, and now I say it to myself, too. If you’re not breathing properly you’re going to become stressed and the lack of oxygen to your brain is going to make it harder for you to do any type of intellectual work, most particularly writing.

Use a special word to redirect yourself. Sometimes called a “stop word” this is a term you will use to remind yourself to stop focusing on the past or future. I don’t like words like “no” or “stop” as I find them too negative (and too closely tied to the concept of suppression.) But a more positive expression like: “focus,” “pay attention,” “now” or “redirect” can accomplish the same task in a more positive way.

Many people think that writing is a time-consuming task. I disagree. I think that researching and editing take a lot of time but that writing should be fairly straightforward. And it can be, if you can keep you mind focused on the job.

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My video podcast last week answered a question about how to make the transition to editing. See it here and please consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you stay focused when you’re writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by March 31/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Ifferisms, by Mardy Grothe. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted March 14th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Susan

    As always, great reminders about how to stay on task with writing. Am turning off the email and setting my timer in a sec …

  • Lena Levin

    In my experience, trying to postpone thinking about a polar bear is about as futile as trying not to think about the cutie… If unwelcome thoughts emerge in the process of writing, it usually means either that what I am writing isn’t interesting enough even to myself, or that there is a feeling, an emotion, perhaps something I am trying to repress, which gets “translated” into these thoughts (or both).

    In the former case, it makes sense to pause and think whether it makes sense to write it at all (with 1.4 millions books published every year, this is something worth contemplating in any event) — or perhaps more thinking and research or something is needed before this is worth writing about.

    In the latter case — a repressed feeling and emotion — it can actually concern the piece I am writing directly; that is, it emerges in connection with what I am writing. In that case, my best strategy is to get directly to that feeling and just _feel_ it (it works best if I can find it in my body). Maybe it’s something worth channeling into writing — or maybe it is just something that has to be felt through before the writing can go on.

    • You make a good point, Lena, about the need for our writing to be INTERESTING, even to ourselves, as the writer(s). In my experience, if the writer is bored when writing, the reader will surely be bored when reading.

  • Hi Daphne,

    I definitely agree with you that you have to be totally in the present moment to be effective as a writer. So many people don’t live for today. They are completely consumed with the future, and yet it is how we live today that creates our future. It is what we feel today that matters, because it is the only thing the determines your future. Feeling the importance of the message you’re about to write… is critical to the reader’s positive response to your prose. That’s the visual image I use to maintain my focus. It works!

    • Good point about having a strong visual image to maintain your focus. Thanks for sharing, Michael!

  • Mia

    Thank you for your readable, actionable and enjoyable blog posts. They seem to be the only ones I read, when I read any.

  • yehudit

    I find visual images helpful. With everything I write, i have a specific image in mond, one that can be called up when my attention wanders. “Looking” at a different part of the image helps me refocus on what i want to write about. Obviously, each project calls for a different set of images.

    • What an interesting idea, Yehudit! I’ve never heard anyone suggest this before but I can see how helpful it would be. I think I need to go round up some images for myself…