How to improve your focus

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Do you ever feel overwhelmed when you need to write? Here are some suggestions for how to improve your focus…

As I write this column, I’m feeling overwhelmed. Why?

  • I just said goodbye to a contractor who carved a hole in our dining-room ceiling. He was investigating a leak from the bathroom above. Yes, I know we recently rebuilt our house. Sigh. As these things go, it was good news: the problem was obvious and the fix will be relatively inexpensive. Still it was distracting.
  • I have to finish writing a guest post for another website. The piece is due tomorrow and I’ve completed only half of it.
  • I must edit an article for a client and post it on their website within the next two hours.
  • I need to prepare for a client workshop in July and must do at least one pomodoro on it, right away.
  • I haven’t yet started my blog post for tomorrow. By the time I’ve written, edited, found a photo for it and entered it into WordPress, that will cost me 30 minutes.
  • I need to finish this column I’m writing now.

So much to do, so little time. That’s partly why I was intrigued to learn that a three-second distraction can really mess you up.  A recent study by researchers at Michigan State University  found that interruptions as brief as 2.8 seconds caused participants to more than double the number of errors they made when doing a computer exercise.

As a self-employed contractor, I remember being told many years ago that a two-minute break to answer a brief phone call should always count as a 15-minute interruption, because you were disrupted. Now, I learn, even the sound of your phone ringing is disruptive (the experts suggest you turn it off if you want to get your work done.)

But I’m still feeling overwhelmed even though my phone hasn’t rung all afternoon. How can I improve my focus?

I know I’ll feel better if I accomplish at least one of the items on my list above, so I’ve picked this column. Choosing one thing and beginning work on it is always a good first step for writers because, realistically, we can all do only one thing at a time. Although the word “multi-tasking” holds a vaunted spot in our lexicon, it’s no more realistic than the notion of unicorns or talking teddy-bears. Even the American Psychological Association admits that we cannot multi-task. The best we can do is task-switch — and this comes at the cost of efficiency. Me? I’d rather focus on one thing and then move on to the next one.

When writers I coach tell me that their writing is no good, I remind them to do the best they can and that this will have to be good enough. I’m aware that this might sound like pandering, or worse, like something Shirley Temple might have sung about, but what can we ever do except our best? To expect any more is folly! Trying to be better than we are is the kind of crazy-making mind-set that makes us more overwhelmed, less-productive and even less likely to produce any writing.

Finally, I remind myself that my work is never going to lessen by the strength of my worry about it. Worry accomplishes nothing and, in fact, only hampers my ability. Worry triggers the fight-or-flight response which prevents clear thinking and is more likely to cause me to make stupid choices. Seth Godin had great fun this year with his April 1 send-up on the concept of worry but there’s not much amusing about it in real life. Worry is debilitating and the best way around it is to go right through it. Note your worries on a piece of paper and then go do something else. You’ll fool your mind into thinking you haven’t given up on worrying. Better yet, you’ll actually get something done.

Getting something done, written, is the best possible way to stop feeling overwhelmed. That’s because once you actually start, you’ll realize your imagination has made the job seem far more daunting than it truly is.

And, what do you know, I’ve just finished today’s column.

How do you improve your focus? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by June 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the intriguing non-fiction book Start with Why by Simon Sinek. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.