In Focus: 3 elements to consider, I outlined three elements that affect your focus during a writing session: the task itself, how you are feeling, and the context. I am going to write a series of follow up articles going into more detail about what that framework looks like in practice. (At some point, this will become a Short Guide)
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.
One option is to select a task based on its compatibility with how you are feeling today. Consider both your physical and emotional state, in general and specifically. If you can do relatively simple things to change how you are feeling (e.g. get a glass of water, use meditation to change your mood a bit, etc), taking the time to do that is worthwhile. That option is not always available or enough.
Choosing a task to suit your physical state
If you are exhausted or ill you probably can’t focus in the way you can when healthy and well-rested. Whether your fatigue or illness is temporary or chronic, you need to manage your activities to work with it. Focus and concentration require energy. Pushing yourself to focus intensely for a long period when exhausted or ill is going to make things worse. You may manage it today, but you might pay for it tomorrow when you find that you can’t do anything. Those managing a chronic illness will be familiar with this. Those who are temporarily ill or exhausted can use the same principles.
- Do tasks requiring intense focus in shorter chunks.
- Choose tasks that require less intense focus (especially if your situation is temporary).
- Adjust the context to minimize disruption.
You can also adjust the context to minimize the amount of energy you are spending on basic things like staying upright. If you get more energy to focus on your writing by lying in bed propped up on pillows, do it. If your pomodoro cycle becomes write-sleep-write-sleep, that’s okay. If speaking is easier, now is the time to try voice-to-text. Yes you’ll need to edit later. That’s okay.
Choosing tasks to suit your emotional state
Emotions are trickier, not least because “professional” is constituted as “unemotional”. We could get into a whole feminist analysis of the treatment of emotions in professional contexts but let’s just cut to the chase. Emotions are there. They affect your work. You are not weak for taking them into account. As with most things, my advice is to work with them rather than trying to squelch or ignore them.
First notice how you are feeling, both in general and about the specific project. If you aren’t used to naming your emotions, you may find it difficult. I have sometimes found it helpful to use a list of emotions to help develop my ability to distinguish them with more subtlety. (I like the feelings and needs list on this site.)
If you are feeling strong and confident today, you might want to take a deep breath and tackle that section that you find a bit challenging. If you’re feeling vulnerable, you might instead choose a section or task that is within your comfort zone. Not only is feeling uncomfortable going to make it harder to focus on the challenging task, but spending time on it and struggling is going to intensify your vulnerable feelings, whereas succeeding at a task, even an easier one, will help you feel better about yourself.
There are situations where you can’t imagine ever feeling strong enough to tackle the challenging parts, especially if you suffer from anxiety or depression. In this case, just as with chronic physical illness, you can work out how to make those tasks manageable. Break it down into smaller parts so you don’t make your situation worse and do other things to support yourself emotionally. What is the emotional equivalent of working in bed propped up on pillows?
Choosing not to write is one option
One way that you choose the task to suit how you are feeling is to choose not to write at all. This is always an option. I treat it as one of several options in this category in order to help you see that you do have other options. You can write something different. You can do a task that your gremlins think isn’t really writing but that moves your project forward. Sometimes the right decision is to not write and do something else: mark those papers, deal with all the things that are going wrong in the first week of term, go to bed and sleep all day so you are less exhausted or ill tomorrow, use the time to see your therapist, whatever.
The interplay between task, physical and emotional state, and context is complex. In this article I’ve focused on just one perspective and suggested strategies that involve adjusting the task to suit how you are feeling. I will be looking at other combinations in other articles. The more choices you have around each of the three elements, the more likely you are to be able to write regularly and keep your projects moving forward. These tips on focus should also help with your focus in other areas of your work, too, which may mean you have more time and energy for your writing.
You need a writing practice provides a general context for being able to make these types of decisions in any particular session.
Optimizing Focus: 3 elements to consider outlines the overall framework of considering task, feelings, context
Fatigue impairs cognitive function on the physical effects of tiredness on your cognitive capacity
This article was first published on 14 September 2018 as an email to subscribers of my Academic Writing Studio newsletter. I split the newsletter content into 2 parts. The other part is Optimizing Focus: Choosing the task to suit the context. Some of the opening and closing sections are repeated in both articles. I will be publishing future instalments of this series on Focus to the newsletter first. If you sign up for email about the Academic Writing Studio, you will receive one email a month on this topic or other topic related to your writing practice and one email on the 4th Friday of the month prompting you to review your accomplishments and adjust your plans for the month ahead. Sign up for the Academic Writing Studio newsletter.