December 5th, 2016

3 Ways to Improve Your Writer’s Focus and Get More Done

Colleen M. Story

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Have you ever sat down to write and after four minutes found yourself thinking about something else?

Were you frustrated? Irritated? Angry at yourself?

Well don’t be. With everything we all have going on in our lives—say nothing of all the distractions in today’s world—it’s very difficult to maintain focus on anything, say nothing of something as difficult and complex as writing a story (or article or poem).

Below are three of the most common things that tend to ruin a writer’s focus—and what you can do to get around them.

  1. Age

No one likes to think about it, but age affects focus and brainpower, and we’re not just talking about octogenarians here.

Just like the rest of the body, the brain slows down with age. You know when the fine lines start to show up around your eyes and the gray hairs make their appearance? That’s about the time your brain starts changing, too.

Scientists have discovered that from the age of 20 years on, we gradually lose brain cells, which slows processing speed. If you’ve ever had “brain fog,” you’ve likely experienced the results of this process.

In fact, a 2014 study found that starting at age 24, our cognitive abilities start to decline, and about every 15 years after that, cognitive speed drops by 15 percent.

Age also means that we start to lose our ability to retain information—it doesn’t “stick” as well in our brains. (What did you say your name was?) This can happen as early as our 30s. It may also take us longer to learn new things.

As we go on, the cortex of the brain gets thinner, and the protective sheath around the neurons starts to degrade. By the age of 60, the brain actually starts to shrink.

In addition, keeping our attention focused on something actually requires the brain to conduct a number of processes at the same time. We have to not only focus on what we’re doing, but block out other things going on around us that may distract us. We have to sustain that attention over a good amount of time (if we are to get any writing done), which takes a certain amount of brain energy.

All these changing factors mean that keeping your attention on your task of writing can start to get more difficult starting even in your mid-thirties.

To Counteract the Effect of Age on Focus:

To help maintain your ability to focus on your work even as you age, help your brain out with these steps:

  • Shut down all distractions. If there’s something else calling for your attention (television, social media, other people), your brain has to do double-duty trying to shut that out while you’re working. This increases risk that you’ll get distracted. Turn off your Internet, shut down the social media, and find a place to work where you don’t be disturbed.
  • Watch your medications. Antihistamines, antidepressants, pain medications, sleeping pills, and more can affect focus, concentration, and cognitive abilities. Try to limit what you’re taking before your writing time, and talk to your doctor about alternatives if you think the meds are bothering you.
  • Get enough sleep. Insomnia and other sleep disorders (like sleep apnea) can upset the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, causing cognitive decline. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin B. A shortage of B vitamins can lead to cognitive difficulties.
  • Practice focusing. We can counteract a lot of aging’s affects on the brain by practicing the skills we want to retain. Outside of your writing time, practice focusing in other areas, such as when you’re talking with someone (focus on really listening), or when your commuting, try listening to an audio book and focus on the story.
  1. Multi-tasking.

Some people brag about their multi-tasking abilities, but research has shown that the brain cannot multi-task. Instead, what it does is switch back and forth between two or more projects quickly.

And guess what? With age, our ability to switch slows down. In that 2014 study mentioned above, researchers found that juggling multiple tasks or shifting focus from one project to another was one of the first brain skills to be affected by age.

Multi-tasking requires multiple processes in the brain, and studies have shown that older adults are more affected by the division of attention than young adults, particularly if both projects require intense focus. Scientists say we have fewer processing resources as we age. We’re like computers without enough RAM, and unfortunately for us, we can’t just install more.

To Counteract the Effect of Multi-tasking on Focus:

The best way to counteract the slow-down that multi-tasking causes is just not to multi-task. Don’t try to write and watch your toddler at the same time, or write while watching television or talking on the telephone.

If you have to juggle more than one activity at a time, these steps may help.

  • Studies have found that exercise helps delay aging of the brain. We’re talking aerobic exercise, here, so img_1216anything that gets you breathing a little heavy. Try walking fast, jogging or running, jumping rope, rebounding, aerobics classes, or any sports that you like. Go for at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Listen to music. If you have to multi-task, make listening to music your other task if possible. Research has shown it may help the brain stay focused on a project.
  • Reduce stress. If you’re trying to write and babysit at the same time and you’re stressed out, you’re likely to fail. Studies have found that chronic stress can actually kill neurons in the brain. Set up your environment to be relaxing. Provide your child with something to play with, for example, so she’ll be happy while you write.

These steps can help you, but bottom line, realize that multi-tasking is a myth anyway, and that switching from one task to another gets harder every year. You’ll get more done in less time if you can focus on just your writing.

  1. Stress

Speaking of stress, it’s one of the top three things that can destroy your focus.

Writers know how this goes. We struggle to fit writing into our busy lives, which is stressful enough. But then there are deadlines to meet, marketing to tackle, and social media to update.

We can usually deal with the occasional stressful event, like an upcoming book launch. But chronic stress—the kind that continues on a low level for weeks or months—can be really bad for the brain and seriously inhibit your ability to focus.

img_1303A recent study revealed that stress can actually create inflammation in the brain, which can lead to memory loss and depression. The stress seemed to encourage the immune system to attack the brain’s cells, not only causing inflammation but actually preventing the growth of new brain cells.

In an earlier study, researchers found that women who were stressed took 10 percent more time to recall recently learned information. Researchers suspected that hormones released during stress, including cortisol, flooded the prefrontal cortex, messing with memory.

“Our ability to focus, concentrate and remember has a lot to do with how much emotional stress we are experiencing,” write the authors of the book, HeartMath Brain Fitness Program. “Emotional stress has a major impact on our immediate and long-term cognitive functions, and underlies many of the mental health problems in society today.”

Other research has found that stress hormones actually target the prefrontal cortex, which controls high-level executive functions—including focus and the ability to inhibit distraction. Chronic stress can result in a number of other brain changes as well, impairing cognitive flexibility and potentially inducing anxiety.

To Counteract the Effect of Stress on Focus:

It’s nearly impossible to live a stress-free life, so to limit the effects on your writing focus, try these steps:

  • Practice stress-relief daily. Incorporate yoga, meditation, tai-chi, pet therapy, long walks, massage, and bellaother stress-relieving activities into your daily routine. It’s that important! Get used to spending time every day de-stressing and relaxing.
  • Dump your stress. Before you start on your writing project, consider “dumping” your stress either through journaling or list-making. Jot down whatever’s bothering you so you can set it aside and focus.
  • Stoke your positive emotions. Positive emotions counteract stress. It’s been found in some studies to be the fastest way to feel better! Before you start writing, try making a list of things you’re grateful for, or send a thank-you note to someone who deserves it. Gratitude is one of the best ways to encourage positive emotions.
  • Eat right. Certain foods have been shown to be more effective than others at helping to reduce stress levels. Those that contain magnesium, for example, may be relaxing. Try bananas and avocadoes, and throw in more green leafy veggies for powerful antioxidants that counteract the damaging effects of stress. Fatty fish, walnuts, and other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids may also help the brain better manage adrenaline levels.
  • Read. Are you spending all your time writing, and no time reading? It may be time to pick up another book. A 2009 study found that reading could reduce stress by up to 68 percent! A more recent study also found that heavy readers lived an average of two years longer than those who didn’t read. To reduce stress and increase focus, try reading for just 5-10 minutes before you start writing.

How do you maintain your focus while writing?

*    *     *     *

Colleen StoryColleen M. Story is a novelist, health and wellness writer, and motivational speaker specializing in creativity, productivity, and personal wellness. Her literary novel, Loreena’s Gift, won 1st place in the Idaho Author Awards (2016), and was a Best Book Awards finalist (2016). Her fantasy novel, Rise of the Sidenah, was a North American Book Awards winner, and New Apple Book Awards Official Selection (Young Adult). She has authored thousands of articles for a variety of publications, including Healthline, Renegade Health, 4Health Magazine, Women’s Health, and has ghostwritten books for a number of clients on subjects like back pain and cancer recovery. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers and other creatives. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.

 

Sources:

Eric Braverman, “You’re Getting Dumber as You Age: Here’s How to Slow the Decline,” The Atlantic, February 3, 2012.

Elizabeth L. Glisky, Brain Aging: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms. Riddle DR, editor. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2007; “Chapter 1: Changes in Cognitive Function in Human Aging.”

Alice Park, “Our Brains Begin to Slow Down at Age 24,” Time, April 15, 2014.

Joseph J. Thompson, et al., “Over the Hill at 24: Persistent Age-Related Cognitive-Motor Decline in Reaction Times in an Ecologically Valid Video Game Task Begins in Early Adulthood,” PLoS One, April 9, 2014.

Maridel Reyes, “How Your Brain Changes with Age,” Canyon Ranch, December 2, 2013.

Daniel B. McKim, et al., “Neuroinflammatory Dynamics Underlie Memory Impairments after Repeated Social Defeat,” Journal of Neuroscience, March 2, 2016, 36(9):2590-2604.

Stress and Cognitive Decline,” Heartmath Institute, January 21, 2014.

Eunice Y. Yuen, et al., “Repeated Stress Causes Cognitive Impairment by Suppressing Glutamate Receptor Expression and Function in Prefrontal Cortex,” Neuron, March 8, 2012; 73(5):962-977.

Reading can help reduce stress,” Telegraph, March 30, 2009.

26 comments to 3 Ways to Improve Your Writer’s Focus and Get More Done

  • Number #2 is my nemesis! I use music to drown out Alpha Dog’s Westerns in the great room, but I have a harder time, not checking FB and emails every ten minutes!

    Thanks for the great tips, Colleen!

  • Often, like today, I grab the rest of my morning coffee and sit down to get to work. I check my emails one last time and read the important ones (see who rates here?) and then turn off my email. With email notifications off and my cell phone silenced, I can get to work much more easily.

  • megwolfewrites

    This is Truth, Colleen. I swear I’m a walking illustration of all your points. I went off of HRT in the middle of this year’s book, plus started sampling different meds to treat asthma, and everything that should have been routine turned into major difficulties. For next year, I’m going to seriously rethink how I’m working and living, and make the most of turning 62.

  • Love this Colleen. Was just telling my husband that I felt I’d lost an entire week but got little done. I felt anxious over my inability to focus. But then I took stock: we had wood floors put in Mon/Tues with all that sawing and banging, we’ve been selling old furniture on Craigslist, expecting deliveries–even in the quiet moments I couldn’t pull my speaddled brain back together. Now I know why! Meditation before I knuckle down today? Added! Thanks.

  • And now you have me worried about how much my “well over 60-year-old” brain has shrunk.

  • jamesr403

    Thank you for a great post! I use headphones to listen to music (I have along playlist) and it’s also a signal to others that I’m working. I especially liked the “multitasking” debunking. That matches my experience. I was glad to see references, too. Thanks again!

  • Very informative and useful tips. Thanks for doing the research and putting this together. Steps we probably all know, but seldom follow.

  • Yes to everything you wrote. Only now I’m alone and no job to go to. Your post gave me hope that yes I can do something about the lack of ability to focus. I’ve always used music to drown out noise and silence has a noise all it’s own for me. But I’ve gotten careless and unthinking about what I’m doing since It’s only me. 2 TV’s going, letting mind wander instead of intentionally thinking about what I’m doing. Yes your post has helped me a lot and Thanks for it.

    • colleen

      Great points! Yes, the TV is good “company” when you’re alone and we can start to forget how distracting it can be. Good luck improving your focus! :O)

  • Fae Rowen

    Thanks for much more than just three ways to improve my writing focus, Colleen. And I’m with James on debunking the whole multi-tasking thing. How can dividing your attention be better than giving something your full attention?

  • Julie Orbe

    I have this very problem. I use to be an excellent writer for years. And I didn’t have the means to publish, or submit synopsis through my family network because life happened And I had to move away from the family show business connections. Which in turn was discouraging, but nevertheless I managed to improve my writing by far, but like i mentioned I lost all my important means to submit to my editor, and other connections. Since I’ve had writers block!

  • Excellent post, Colleen. Your website offers truly helpful writer insights and I appreciate you! Thanks for being different, and thanks for being better than the rest.

  • Disclaimer: I’m an 85-year-old advocate for creativity in the aging. I spoke at the Aging Re-Imagined Symposium at Wake Forest this year about an author who began to write at 86, and had 2 great adventure novels published by an indie press and was working on a 3d when he died at 91; about a photographer in his 80s whose latest book was launched at the Smithsonian; about a woman in her 80s, whose 1st book of poetry had just won an award; about a woman who began painting in her late 60s and is now having her work hung in juried shows. And these are just a few people I happen to know.

    In a study published this year, neuroscientists at Columbia University have demonstrated that the dentate gyrus, a sliver of tissue in the hippocampus, where memories are formed, continues to produce new brain cells. The youngest cells play a role in pattern separation – the brain’s ability to distinguish between similar, yet different, contexts when forming memories.

    • colleen

      Hi, Carol! I’ve heard about some of these studies, especially the one about producing new brain cells, which I know was a surprise to researchers. Nice to know that even with aging changes, we can still learn and grow. It just takes a little adjusting, similar to the changes we need to make physically as we age. The more we know! :O)

  • Oh this is so true! I try to make sure I focus on learning or practicing something new every day because I have no choice BUT to pay attention to it. So using my German app to help me practice my vocab is certainly helpful 🙂 But it’s funny, if I’m reading a book it’s nigh-on impossible to distract me, but if I’m on my laptop, it’s Distraction Central!

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