How to improve your focus — even during holidays…

Reading time: Less than 4 minutes

Is it worth even thinking about writing during holiday time? If your answer is “maybe,” consider the ways in which you might be able to improve your focus… 

While many writing bloggers are currently addressing burning issues like best holiday gifts for writers and how to take a break during the holidays (to be fair, I’ve done topics like that in the past, too), I’m not going that route today.

Instead, I’m writing about how to increase your focus when the entire world wants you to be eating shortbread and drinking eggnog.

Why would I touch such a heavy-duty topic during holiday time? Simple. People who are good at focusing get more done in less time. In other words, you’ll be able to take more time off during Christmas and other holidays if you accomplish more during those times when you’re working.

Moreover, our society desperately needs better focus right now. With Facebook, Twitter and email constantly distracting us, we’ve lost the ability the concentrate. And most of our workplaces don’t help with their constant interruptions. A study of tech workers by the University of California at Irvine found that participants could work on a project for only 11 minutes before being interrupted. Worse, it took these workers 25 minutes to regain their focus after each interruption. You can read about the study in a fascinating New York Times article by Clive Thompson.

If you want to improve your focus, here are five steps you can take:

1-Turn off your technology as much as possible. In the last two weeks, I’ve chosen to keep my email shut off for most of the day. Wow! What a change this action has made to my life. I feel less stressed and less distracted. (I used to collect my email manually, which meant I had to monitor my own collection habits, which veered towards the obsessive — as in, collecting every six minutes — whenever I became tired or bored. Recently, however, I switched to an IMAP account, which means there’s no way to turn it off, short of shutting down the program.) Now I try to collect email no more than several times a day. This makes me way more effective.

I’ve also signed off of Facebook. (Haven’t shut down my account yet because I want to be in touch with family members if necessary, but I may make that move in 2019.) And I restrict my Twitter activity to 10 minutes per day, at the end of my day. Also, I now lock my cellphone in my desk. A 2017 study  in The Journal of the Association of Consumer Research found that even if your phone is powered off, and even if you’re successfully ignoring it, its mere existence reduces your cognitive capacity. Yikes!

2-Aggressively manage expectations around your communications habits. Many clients tell me that their bosses expect them to be 100% available all the time. With a little probing, I usually find out that they have put this expectation on themselves. Instead of assuming you need to be available 24/7, ask your boss to set some priorities for you. Also, remind them that if they want you to write, you need uninterrupted time to do that task. Negotiate some writing windows (start with a minimum of 30 minutes) when you aren’t going to be responsible for checking your email or responding to phone calls or texts. And if you’re self-employed, then carve out these times for yourself. You’re your own boss now; don’t be an unrealistic one!

3-Keep your workplace uncluttered. Clutter competes for our attention, increases stress and decreases performance. If you don’t have time to organize your desk right now, sweep the top of it into a box and organize it later. I have a big wire basket into which I place all my papers for filing and sorting, which I do once a week.

4-Take more breaks and go outside more. Many people feel guilty about taking breaks, but these breaks are so important for writers, I don’t think we should call them breaks. We should call them ‘planning sessions’ or ‘recovery periods.’ It’s the downtime and the time off that allows us to engage the creative parts of our brains so necessary for writing. Better yet, to make the most of this downtime, get outside, into nature. Head to the nearest park where you can see plants and trees. This greenery is nurturing.

5-Set priorities about what you want to achieve. Many of my clients complain that when they try to write, all hell breaks loose and they just don’t have the time. I get it! But the way around this problem is to write before all hell breaks loose. I worked on my book for 30 minutes this morning. Truth be told, I don’t really have time for that today, but it’s an important project for me, so I did it first. Always do the important before the urgent. The critical nature of the urgent work will be enough to keep you focused on it in the afternoon when your attention is more likely to flag. Give your mornings to the important work — your own goals and objectives, the tasks that are going to make your life better or help your career — when you have the most energy and attention.

All work and no play makes for very dull writers. So, I am NOT suggesting you do nothing but work. Instead, I’m saying that when you work, make that work as productive as possible so you can have more time for the fun things in life.

If you want some help improving your focus and if you have an important writing goal for 2019, consider applying to my Get It Done program. This three-month accountability group will give you the structure you need to become more focused and productive as a writer. I’m going to be hosting a no-cost webinar about how Get It Done works on Thursday, Dec. 27 at 1 pm Pacific. Email me if you’d like to attend. No charge, but pre-registration is required.

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My video podcast last week advised how writers can get more out of their reading. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. 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 improve your focus?  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 Dec. 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. 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.