An audio version of this post will be coming soon.
Everyone struggles with focus. This is why I prompt participants in A Meeting With Your Writing to think about what they’d like to try that day to optimise their focus. In this rather long post, I set out the fundamental principles that underpin those prompts. There are lots of links to other posts, both here in the Library and beyond, and I plan to update this post and the links regularly. I have also created internal links that enable you to jump between sections. Your browser’s back button should take you back to your previous location. Onwards!
Do you struggle with distraction and procrastination?
Do you struggle to write regularly because the conditions that you need to focus are impossible in your current context?
Do you struggle to find time to write because you find it difficult to focus on your other tasks and they end up taking more time than you would like, leaving no time for writing?
Finding it hard to focus is normal
Self-flagellation does not work to improve your focus. Furthermore it takes time and energy that takes you away from your writing; it is another distraction. I firmly believe that you can approach your work compassionately rather than violently. You do not have to go into battle in order to write. I will outline the main principles here and develop them in separate articles which will be linked at the bottom.
I’ve developed these ideas thinking about your writing practice and tested them in A Meeting With Your Writing. However, you may find that focus is an issue in other areas of your work, too. It may affect how long it takes you to do other tasks, restricting how much time you have to write, especially during a busy teaching term. You can use these principles to focus on anything.
Optimizing your focus means considering your particular circumstances and using strategies that work to support the positive aspects and mitigate the negatives. You don’t get distracted just because things are there to distract you. Your desire for distraction varies. (see Focus and the desire for distraction for more on this)
Everyone is different. What works for you is not what works for your friend, your colleague, or that expert whose advice you read. Every day is different. What worked for you yesterday may not work today. I prompt participants in A Meeting With Your Writing to make observational notes about their focus at the end of each writing session. I encourage you to do the same. Use the 3 elements described below to structure your observations. Review your notes periodically and use them to experiment with strategies for optimising your focus.
There is no magic wand. Beware the ecological fallacy when reading research. Do not blame yourself if something that has been shown to work for 80% of the research subjects doesn’t work for you. Use research evidence to form hypotheses and design experiments.
You may find it helpful to learn whether or not you have a diagnosable condition like ADHD, autism, or something else that might affect your focus and your approach to particular tasks. Having a diagnosis often helps quiet the gremlins and find that self-compassion. A diagnosis helps you filter the research about focus to find things that may be particularly helpful and may be necessary to secure accommodations to your working conditions that will make it easier. You may also find that there are medications that make a real difference for some kinds of tasks.
After a while, you need not waste energy in self-criticism when (not if) you get distracted because you know this is normal. You have strategies for bringing yourself back to your task. You know that writing is like meditation that way: the advanced practice is not freeing your mind of distraction but returning to the desired state more quickly.
There are 3 main areas to consider when determining what might affect your focus in any given writing session.
There are a lot of different tasks that go into academic writing. Some of them are conducive to getting into a flow state in which you are so absorbed in your thinking and writing you may not even notice things in your environment. Others, like proofreading, benefit from not getting into flow at all. Some tasks are so tedious you almost need to tie yourself to the chair to stick with them.
It may also be difficult to do a particular task without get distracted by the other things you could do with this material. You are reading to strengthen a particular section but get distracted by other interesting possibilities in the thing you are reading. You are trying to revise a draft to clarify the structure but get distracted by typos and spelling mistakes.
When you sit down to write, take a moment to think about what your focus is normally like when you work on this particular task. Be honest with yourself. Notice details like how long it typically takes you to get into flow, how long you can typically concentrate before you start getting antsy, whether there are potential distractions within the task, etc. (You can take observational notes at the end of your session to develop a better picture of this over time.)
How you feel
No matter what the task, how you are feeling, physically and emotionally, will affect your focus. Are you tired, or energised? Are you in pain or ill? Are you thirsty? What’s going on emotionally in general? What emotions are your project and the specific task you intend to work on triggering?
How you are feeling may make it easier to focus or harder. (See Focus and the desire for distraction for an example of how this might surprise you.) To optimise your focus you’ll either need strategies to mitigate those effects or you could choose a task more suited to your current physical and emotional state. Taking notes at the end of your session will help you learn more about how different physical and emotional states affect your focus.
Your context includes things like the physical environment in which you are writing, the amount of time you have available, and whether or not you have your research materials nearby. It also includes your general state of mind, not so much how you are feeling but just generally how much you have on your mind.
Although the existence of distractions doesn’t necessarily mean you will be distracted, they cannot be discounted. The context in which you are writing will vary in terms of the types of distractions you need to manage. The context may also support certain kinds of focus. Considering the specific context you are writing in enables you to identify specific potential distractions and put in place strategies to mitigate those distractions. It can also prompt you to think about how to best align your writing task with the context. You might do that by choosing a context that will support your intended task, or by choosing a task that will benefit from the particular context you find yourself in.
I use the term “optimize” purposefully. Your goal is not to achieve some ideal state of focus that you can replicate every time you sit down. Your focus will vary based on the particular combination of task, feelings (physical & emotional), and context. Your goal is to optimize your focus for this session given what you are working with today. Once you have considered the task, how you are feeling, and the context, you can identify strategies to optimise your focus in this particular writing session. Knowing how your focus is affected by different tasks, feelings, and contexts and having a range of strategies available also makes it possible to write (or do other kinds of task) in a wider range of circumstances than you might have thought possible. At the very least you can be compassionate with yourself and set reasonable expectations for this session knowing that things will be different next time.
Strategies for optimising focus take many forms. You can choose the task to suit the context or how you are feeling. You can choose the context that best suits the particular task you want to work on today. You can identify strategies for dealing with specific types of distraction. For example, if your task comes with a high desire for distraction you may want to shut down your email program and use an app that blocks your access to the internet/social media like Freedom or Anti-Social. You can make small modifications to your context to improve your focus. For example, you can make conscious decisions about whether to break your writing session into shorter chunks (sometimes called Pomodoros) or allow yourself to get into flow for longer. There may be relatively simple things you can do to change how you are feeling, physically or emotionally, so it is easier to focus. For example, if your lack of focus feels like physical restlessness, you might take a short break to do some kind of physical activity (e.g. stretch, dance, run up and down stairs) before sitting back down to write.
When you finish your writing session, take a moment to make some observational notes about your focus considering these 3 elements. Also note how your project moved forward and leave yourself some breadcrumbs to help you get back into it in your next session.
Posts in this series
I am going to write a series of follow up articles going into more detail about what that framework looks like in practice. These will be sent to the Academic Writing Studio newsletter list first and then edited and published in the Library. At some point, there will be a Short Guide, probably called Optimizing Focus.
Other related posts:
This article was sent to subscribers to my Academic Writing Studio marketing newsletter on 8 June 2018. It was published to the Library with minor edits on 15 June 2018. I have updated it, adding material first published as “Focus & Distraction: self-flagellation not required” to the introduction, updating links, and clarifying the material in each section.