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When you sit down to write do you find yourself lured away into the world of daydreams? Here’s how to stop your mind from wandering…
When I was doing my undergrad degree — decades ago — my mind used to wander all over the place. I’d be sitting in the library, trying to work on a paper, and my mind immediately started speculating on my future career. Where was I going to work? Could I really get a job (out of a poli sci degree)? Did I want to go to law school or do something else?
And when I could put aside those career considerations, other seductive ideas popped into my head. Where could I go hiking and camping that summer? Did I want to get a cinnamon bun or a donut from the cafeteria? Did I really want to go on a date with X, who was another student in the program?
I could concentrate on anything, it seemed, except what I needed to write about.
In fact, our brains are built to wander, with the average person spending up to one-third of their life having thoughts not related to the task at hand. This happens even though mind wandering almost always leads to unhappiness. “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” is the title of a study by cognitive researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.
If you find that mind wandering is hampering your ability to write, here are 10 mostly easy ways to stop it:
- Monitor your mind wandering: This is the first step because how can you change any behaviour if you don’t know when it’s happening? So, start documenting your mind wandering. Where is it going? Take notes and then act! Do you need a vacation? Do you need to confront a troublesome co-worker? Do you need to find a new job? Figure out what, specifically, is wrong and then take some steps to fix it.
- Give yourself plenty of time to relax: Many people I work with drive themselves too hard – and then wonder why their minds rebel by wandering. Be sure to give yourself a significant break at least once every 90 minutes and if mind-wandering is still troubling you, break more frequently. I take a short break every 30 minutes. These breaks allow me to have more focus and attention while I’m working.
- Do only one thing at a time: Multitasking is a stressful, dysfunctional way to try to get your work done and it’s particularly toxic for writing. If you’re writing, don’t do anything else but write. (Note: this means not editing and not researching while you’re writing, either.) Learning to do only one thing at a time will not only reduce your mind wandering — it will also make your life more pleasant and cause you to make fewer mistakes as well.
- Get enough exercise: And you don’t have to run a marathon, either. For writers, I simply recommend lots of walking. This will give you time to think and reflect before you write. Moving the big muscles in our bodies (even in the gentle way required by walking) allows our brains to work better. Don’t try to think at your desk. Go for a walk, instead. (And take your cellphone with you so you can dictate some notes to yourself, if you’re worried about forgetting something.)
- Give yourself a specific time for daydreaming: Some types of daydreaming are pleasurable. Reflecting on a previous vacation or planning for your next one both fall into that category. Your aim isn’t to shut down all daydreaming. It’s to do it when you want to, and not, when you don’t. By giving yourself a specific time in which you’re encouraged to let your mind wander, you’ll find it easier to focus your attention during other times.
- Add a deliberate distraction: When I write, I always have a noisy timer tick-tocking in the background. (This is part of my pomodoro strategy.) I’ve found that a small amount of noise helps me to focus better. One thing you want to avoid is trying to write in silence. A small amount of noise — about 70 decibels — will improve your concentration. If you don’t want a ticking clock, you can listen to coffee-shop sounds (or go into a coffee shop to write), or sounds from nature or classical music.
- Have a phrase or “mantra” to focus yourself: Many of us unconsciously say terrible things to ourselves all time. Your self-talk may be something like this: “Oh no, I have to write now.” Or “I’m going to find this writing job really hard.” Instead, have a positive phrase ready to go. Perhaps, “I get to write right now. This is going to be fun!” Or, “You can do it, Daphne! [insert your own name]”
- Have some coffee or chocolate: Caffeine helps focus the brain. Just remember that we build up tolerance to it, so for this trick to work you need to vary your dose each day. Don’t always have three cups of coffee at certain specific times. Instead, have one cup on Monday, two cups on Tuesday, one cup on Wednesday etc.
- Doodle: Doodling has long been a frowned-upon activity by most teachers, but, in fact, it’s usually a sign of intelligence (and it provides many intellectual benefits as well). I doodle in the form of mindmapping before writing and I encourage all my clients to do the same. It’s a sneaky and effective way to schedule inspiration.
- Focus on your breathing: Writers often don’t breathe very well. In fact, it’s such a common problem, I have my own name for it: writing apnea. Don’t let yourself suffer from this malady. Not only will it increase your mind-wandering, it will also make you more easily tired. Instead, breathe slowly and mindfully, using your abdomen. (You should be able to see it expand and contract.) And always let your exhales take longer than your inhales. Breathing slowly and mindfully increases your ability to concentrate. (And if you find you really enjoy this practice, consider starting to meditate, too.)
Did your mind wander as you read this post? Probably! That’s just the way our minds work. But if you can try two or more of these simple strategies, you’ll not only be able to reduce your mind wandering but you’ll also feel much better about your writing.
Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
How do you stop YOUR mind from wandering? 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 Oct. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!