by Tiffany Yates Martin
I want to tell you about a writing tool that will generate infinite story ideas; that will almost unfailingly allow you to accrue steady word counts; that can help you solve literally any problem in your manuscript.
I know it sounds too good to be true, but this tool works—nearly infallibly—as long as you are using it.
If I promised you a tool like that for your writing, I’m guessing most authors would snatch it up and be eager to start wielding it—but you already own this tool. And I’m betting it often sits neglected in your author toolbox.
It’s your unbroken focus.
Hold on—I know it’s trite to talk about how hard it is to write in a distracted world, but for just one moment, try an exercise with me. For the rest of the day, just pay attention. Make a note—mental or actual—of every time you let your focus on whatever you’re doing or working on slip, even slightly, into something else.
Look at the following:
- Is your phone the first thing you reach for?
What do you do on it? How long does that take? Actually time it. As you’re getting ready or exercising or walking your dogs, are you reading email, scrolling social media, surfing the internet, texting or talking, reading, listening to a podcast? If you commute, do you listen to books on tape or podcasts or news or music? Talk on the phone?
- While you’re writing (or working), time your chunks of completely uninterrupted concentration on a task.
Do you get pulled away after a time to “real quick” look at email, or answer a text, or “just check this one thing” you have to know right that moment? Notice how long your distraction lasts. Notice how long it takes when you refocus on your task before your focus starts to slip again. Notice how many times you pick up your phone in an hour, in a day.
- What if you’re stuck waiting in line or for an appointment—do you immediately reach for your phone?
While you’re watching TV, are you also on the phone or your computer? While reading, do you stop to look things up or take a quick look at social media?
Just notice your behavior for a day—simply pay attention to your uninterrupted attention: where it goes, how often, for how long.
Good writing happens as a result of—at the risk of going Jack Handey on you—deep thoughts. Scattered, shallow thoughts result in underdeveloped, shallow stories. That’s not the kind most of us want to create, but rather the stories that draw readers deeply into their world, that present characters who feel fully fleshed and real, that move readers or make them think or make them see the world in a new way.
And yet most of us are constantly denying our brains that state of full concentration that allows us to fully develop stories like that.
So How Do We Focus?
There’s a Cherokee parable you may be familiar with that I’ll sum up: An elder tells his grandson there are two wolves battling inside each of us, one that is our evil impulses and one that is our good ones.
“Which one wins?” the boy asks.
The grandfather says, “The one you feed.”
Think of your focus as those two wolves: one that allows you to think deeply, concentrate fully, give yourself wholly to your writing—or any pursuit—and one that wants to take you down an internet search rabbit hole or suck you into social media or texts or emails or any other distractions.
Here are a few simple ways you can do that:
- Pay attention: It sounds like a tautology—you pay attention by paying attention—but simply doing the exercise above as often as you can, noticing where your focus goes, can be a powerful first step in reclaiming it.
When I first did this, I realized that I was flipping between something I was working on and email or the internet about every five or ten minutes. A recent UC-Irvine study found that after your focus is broken it can take 23 minutes to regain it, so in most cases I never actually fully got my focus back before I broke it again.
How can we solve thorny plot problems, deeply develop character, or even stay oriented to the world of our stories if we are constantly fragmenting our thoughts?
- Focus on what you’re focusing on. Another seeming tautology, this one helps me keep my attention where I want it. Staying focused is like strength training—you can’t phone it in or slack off; you have to maintain the proper form and sustain the action for the full number of reps or you won’t build those muscles. And just as in weight training, the more consistently you do it, the stronger those muscles get.
It will be hard at first.
Even with the intention of concentrating on a certain thing for a period of time, I’m startled at how often I notice a powerful, insidious pull to “fact check” something really quickly, or bop into email, or just take a quick peek at social media for a brain break, or go grab a snack—especially if what I’m working on is hard or I don’t want to do it.
You can look up that perfect word or obscure research detail later. I make a quick note in brackets when I’m stuck on something to remind me to come back and fix it, e.g., “[something funny here]” or “[research time it takes to refocus].” And then I keep writing. Remember every time you stop to look something up, it will take you 23 minutes to get that deep focus back.
Strategies for Success
Multitasking is a myth, as countless studies have proven. Human brains cannot effectively focus on more than one task at a time. What you’re actually doing is breaking your form. Set blocks of time—whatever works best for you (I like 30 to 90 minutes at a pop)—where you resolve not to allow your truculent brain to wander anywhere else, at all, and rigidly stick to it.
- Put away your phone: Don’t just silence the ringer—keep your phone in another room while you’re writing. A University of Texas study found that simply having a phone nearby interferes with your brain function—even if it’s off, a stunning effect. We existed for many years without being able to be contacted instantly, and the chances of there being a true emergency that requires specifically and only you in the time block you set aside for writing are small.
- Take breaks. Your brain works on problems subconsciously as well as consciously, so trying to bulldoze your concentration for too long could undermine this essential aspect of deep thinking.
Having an off switch is good—your brain needs the rest, and often the problems you’ve been focusing on will keep perking in the background while you give it one. The trick is to make sure you’re doing it intentionally, rather than your focus being hijacked, and that it’s true downtime, not more of that same kind of distraction, leaping from thought to random thought like a capuchin monkey trained by our habitual lack of focus.
Stand up, take a walk, do jumping jacks, play with your kids or pets, even scroll social media if you must. (Though be aware it’s literally designed to suck your brain and be addictive.) Just be sure to keep the break to a defined period of time so it doesn’t leak into the rest of your focus blocks for the day.
You might also work on something else that requires less focus or a different part of your brain. I often switch from deep editing, for instance, to a brief break of something like working on my website redesign, or writing a blog post, or interviewing an author for my How Writers Revise feature.
- Let yourself be “bored.” Too often we reach for distraction the moment we aren’t “doing something,” like in the enforced downtime of waiting in line or for an appointment, traveling, exercising, etc. Instead, try using this time for specific focused thought: Keep your mind on task unraveling an issue you’re struggling with in your story, for instance, or work through your plot or character development. Make sure you do it in a concrete way, not idle flitting thoughts loosely related to the topic.
Give yourself that quiet, focused downtime for deep thinking where ideas are born, where story knots are worked out. You may find you’re never bored.
And stay present in those moments where you are gathering information for your storytelling (in other words, life), rather than burying your head—and your focus—in your computer or your phone. Don’t lose the present moment by “leaving” it with your distracted attention. Everyday experiences—both your own and those you observe—are rich fodder for story. Let yourself fully live them.
- Practice…again and again. Just as in meditation, when we learn to bring our wayward thoughts back over and over and over, you may have to do the same with your wandering concentration. It’s hard, as I’m learning daily each time I think I’m focusing and I notice my concentration has drifted. That’s okay. Don’t judge or get upset with yourself—simply bring your focus back to the task at hand as soon as you notice it wandered. Like any habit, it will take time to really internalize it.
How about you, authors--do you find your focus to be slippery when you’re writing? How often? What distractions fracture your attention? What techniques do you have to combat them? Please share your story down in the comments!
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren't (Nov., Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.