I’ve written about focus and distraction before. A recent question during a Meeting With Your Writing has helped me clarify an important underlying principle. There are 2 parts to getting distracted: the trigger and where you go once distracted. These two elements are not completely distinct but there is value in separating them heuristically so we can get a better sense of how to optimize focus.
Most advice about focus and distraction addresses limiting your options for the second element. I know a lot of you use an app to block your access to (some parts of) the internet, quit your email program, put your phone on Do Not Disturb, and so on. You might also keep your desk tidy and only have those things you need for the task at hand easily available. These are all good strategies for minimizing distraction by reducing where you can go.
For many people, just having lots of other places to go triggers distraction. Removing the places to go removes the trigger, especially for anyone whose brain struggles to process and prioritize all that extra stimulation (e.g. ADHD). However, those with ADHD will also be familiar with the state of hyper-focus, in which you are so absorbed in your task that your normally easily distractible brain doesn’t seem to notice anything in your environment, including hunger pangs and possibly alarms. This state of hyper-focus is an extreme version of what many people experience as a flow state. When you are in flow, the availability of other things you could be doing is less of an issue.
The question that came up in A Meeting With Your Writing highlighted a related issue. Sometimes it feels like you are looking for things to distract you. It’s not so much that whatever is available is triggering your distraction but rather that you are already distracted and looking for an outlet.
My client was frustrated because this was happening when her project was going well after a long period of struggle. It seemed odd that when the writing is going well, she would be leaving the writing to check social media. I often compare focus to meditation. It’s normal to be distracted. The important thing is to get better at noticing it and coming back to focus on your task. She has a meditation practice so when I made that comparison, she was able to think about the problem differently and come up with a solution.
Upon further reflection, she realized that the energy she got from the pleasure of the project going well needed some kind of release. She figured out a way to acknowledge the pleasure and dissipate the energy without leaving her project. Her bafflement is also instructive. It is probably more common that what is creating the desire for distraction is some kind of resistance or negative emotion.
I encourage you to think about what might be triggering your desire for distraction. Note the specifics.
What emotion is being triggered?
Is it related to the content of what you are writing?
Or is it related to your confidence in your ability to do it justice?
Once you have a better idea of what’s going on, you can figure out how to acknowledge that emotion and dissipate the emotional charge enough to return your focus to your project.
Real Writing vs Procrastination addresses this issue in terms of how the emotional context affects what you write
An earlier version of this post appeared in the 23 February 2018 Academic Writing Studio newsletter.