Life is busy, and for many of us, writing happens in smaller blocks of time rather than in big chunks. If we fall prey to one of the many distractions that are competing for our attention, then BAM, that writing time is gone in a blink, and nothing gets written.
It doesn’t have to be this way–the terrifically brilliant Colleen Story of Writing and Wellness is here to show us that if we can find 15 minutes, we can get the words down. Please read on!
You just put the baby down for a nap, and you’ve got 15 minutes before that conference call.
Fifteen minutes of free time. You could write! Goodness knows it’s hard enough to find the time these days. You could take advantage of this small window and finish chapter seven…maybe.
Or…you could open up your laptop and fritter away that 15 minutes reading emails, perusing your Facebook feed, or following some research tangent that you didn’t really need to follow.
If you had 15 minutes, which would you do? Here’s how to make sure you use that precious time to pound out 500 words or more.
We’re Finding it Harder to Focus
Unfortunately, we’re living in a distracted nation, and most of us are finding it increasingly difficult to focus on anything, say nothing of our writing.
Technology giant Microsoft recently surveyed 2,000 people and studied the brain activity of 112 others to gather data about our current ability to focus. They found that the human attention span had fallen from twelve seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds today.
Goldfish, on the other hand, have been found in studies to be able to pay attention for nine seconds. (Gulp. Or should I say, glub?) The researchers blamed technology and smartphones.
As a writer pressed for time (and what writer isn’t?), you need to be able to take full advantage of any free time you may get, which means increasing your focusing skills. Here are three ways to do just that.
- Make it Easy to Tune Out
You may imagine that focusing on your story is all about being able to tune into your characters, setting, and plot, but the truth is that how well you focus is about how well you can tune out everything else.
There’s a part of the brain called the “ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC)” that fires up when you need to inhibit a natural response, like answering a text or email in the middle of your writing time. It’s the brain’s natural braking system, and scientists say the better your VLPFC works, the better you are at focusing on a task.
This system isn’t the most hearty of systems, unfortunately. Things like mental fatigue, stress, interruptions, multi-tasking, and lack of exercise will all make it less effective. Age doesn’t help either. When the fine lines start showing up around your eyes and the gray hairs make their appearance, that’s about the time your brain starts changing, too, making it harder for you to resist those automatic impulses.
The first thing you need to do, then, is to make it easier on your brain to tune everything else out. You’ve got 15 minutes. Spend the first one:
- Turning everything off (smartphone, Internet, email, etc.). Don’t fool yourself that you can concentrate regardless. Remove the temptations.
- Isolating yourself. Put a “do not disturb” sign on the door, or hide out somewhere. (Seriously!)
- If you can’t get away, use noise-cancelling headphones or music to drown out the other distractions around you.
- Opening a notebook or notebook application. If a thought comes up (my brother’s birthday is tomorrow!), write it down and get your brain back on your story.
- Get a glass of water. Even if you’re only slightly dehydrated, it will affect your ability to think clearly.
- Meditate the Easy Way (Practice Focusing)
Most of us have trained ourselves not to focus by responding to distractions all the time. (“Ooh, I got 50 retweets!”) Meditation can help you ditch this bad habit. And don’t worry—you don’t have to be fancy about it.
All you have to do is set the timer for ten minutes, sit quietly, breathe deeply, and focus on one thing. Maybe it’s an image of your favorite place, a candle flame, a spoken sound, or the flower in the corner of the room. Allow your thoughts to come and go without reacting to them. Keep bringing your attention back to your focal point.
Expect it to be uncomfortable. Expect that your brain will keep bugging you to do something else. Resist. Sit. Focus. (I dare you.)
Meditation is the perfect training for focus and concentration. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. If you try it for just a week, you’ll likely notice improvements in your ability to focus faster.
- Practice Delayed Gratification
You can make your VLPFC stronger by finding daily ways to resist your impulses.
Start by resisting for only five minutes. If you want that donut or other nighttime snack, make yourself wait for five minutes. If you’re dying to answer a text, wait for five minutes. If you feel a little chilled, give it five minutes before you put on your sweater.
The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, until you’re able to focus quickly and for long periods of time without getting distracted.
Guess What? It Takes Only Weeks to Improve Your Focusing Skills!
As it becomes easier to sink into your story every day, broaden your application to your other projects. Ask yourself how long it takes you to focus on a task at work, for example, on a conversation with a colleague or friend, or even on a television show. Watch yourself to see how often you are distracted, and how many times you resist those distractions.
Focus is a skill, much like playing a musical instrument or…writing! Practice, practice, practice, and you will get better. You may surprise yourself at how quickly you can pound out those 500+ words.
Kevin McSpadden, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish,” Time, May 13, 2015, http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/.
Colleen M. Story is the author of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue—a motivational and inspiring read full of practical, personalized solutions to help writers escape the tyranny of the to-do list and nurture the genius within. Get your free chapter here!