The Importance of Focus and Distraction in a Writing Life

The Importance of Focus and Distraction in a Writing Life

I’m a bit of a scatterbrain. I write articles for several websites, help edit Uprising Review where I do author interviews, publish op-eds occasionally and co-host a podcast. I also hold down a job, and do some business consulting on the side. Not to mention I am writing my third novel. That’s a lot to do on any given day, and if I’ve learned anything from my hyperactive nature it’s that drifting from project to project can be counterproductive, but it can also be beneficial.

Multitasking is something we all deal with in modernity whether we like it or not, so you might as well get good at it. And how do you get good at it? From my experience it’s all about focus, that is, the ability to shift focus quickly, and to block out other tasks while working on the one at hand. It’s also about letting your mind wander – but not too far.

In fact I’m taking a break from doing research into my Renaissance novel (I’ll just call it Renovel on the blog for short hand, since I’m not 100% decided on a title and also because it just sounds cool). I can’t read anymore right now about Fifteenth Century Italian diets or home life. I never knew carbohydrates were that important to them. In fact the land in and around Florence yielded five times the calories from wheat than from meat. Yea you care, just thought I’d share.

But it might actually be useful to my novel. At the very least I now know that generally only the upper classes would have had meat on a daily basis.

That’s my scatterbrain at work. I’m thinking about research while writing a blog post on the importance of being focused as a writer. If you do this at a day job you’ll probably not get very far unless your boss likes you.

So that’s really what I wanted to write about today. It goes to the heart of professionalism. And if you want to be a professional writer you need to treat writing like a career and not just a hobby. Treat it like a hobby and that’s all it will ever be. So how do you focus up and get more done? It’s all about this thing business managers and efficency experts call compartmentalization.

How do we use this?

First set aside some time and a place to write. In much the same way that a regular job will require you to be at a desk for a certain amount of time you should also be at your desk writing or working on something tangential to writing, for a certain amount of the day. Even if you can only get in one hour do it.

But don’t do it mindlessly. Don’t sit at your desk daydreaming and thinking of the next thing you have to do. That’s the mind poison you can’t afford to let seep into your writing process. So how do you go about that? Didn’t you just say people get distracted easily when faced with something such as a lecture or the prospect of forcing themselves to sit down and do grunt work (and let’s be honest here, that first draft especially if it’s your first novel, is going to require that you put in some elbow grease).

Well what I would suggest is allow yourself to get up and move around. Bounce around a little. Write 200 words of your daily (for example) 1000 and then get up and stretch. Check your twitter feed to see what is happening. Go grab another cup of coffee.

The urge to let your mind wander when you’re focusing on an incredibly complex task is natural. Great business managers don’t keep their employees chained to their desk all day. In fact businesses are starting to realize there is a lot more productivity to be had if you don’t confine your workers to gray cubicles where they just watch the clock tick. I’ve found after writing consistantly for years that writing is the exact same way.

So don’t daydream, but also don’t fight your basic nature to be interested in other things. And no matter what else you do, don’t get distracted and start procrastinating. That’s the danger in what I’m suggesting. If you get on Twitter just to check your timeline make yourself get back to work after five minutes. The single most important skill you can develop to be successful at school, in business, in life (on a date for example), or in writing, is the ability to focus.

But focus doesn’t mean your mind won’t wander. It will. Just let it wander for a little while, then bring it back to task.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go do some research about how Venetians created ceramics and how the average home’s kitchen looked.