Finding the focus to write can be as big a challenge as finding the time, and in some cases, writers think they need more time when in fact what they need is more focus. Here are nine ways to improve focus for writers:
Start with a freewriting session
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron instructs writers to do three pages of freewriting each morning on waking. One of the ideas behind this is that you will dump out a lot of the thoughts, emotions and negativity that may be blocking you. Along the same lines, you might find it helpful to begin a writing session with five to fifteen minutes of freewriting. The freewriting does not need to be related to your writing for the day, but it can be. What you want to do with this initial freewrite is get all of the distractions and wool-gathering out of the way so that you can focus on the writing. Whether your potential distractions are connected to your personal relationships, your job or the writing itself, giving yourself a short session to ruminate on it all helps.
Limit your time
This may sound like a terrible suggestion since most writers feel that they need more time to write and not less. However, you might find that you are giving yourself too much time to dawdle. It’s a well-known phenomenon that some authors, on achieving the dream of being able to write full-time, spend a good chunk of their day procrastinating and end up being no more productive or even less productive than they were when they allegedly had far less time. Some writers have reported developing razor-sharp focus after having children because their time became so limited that they seized whatever moments they had and made the most of them. You don’t need to do anything as drastic as rush off to have children to improve your focus. Simply try cutting back on the length of your writing session. If you find yourself losing focus over two hours, what happens if you cut back to ninety minutes or just an hour?
In some cases, what you do when you are not writing can help you find focus when you are:
The famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is also a dedicated runner, and according to Murakami, the endurance and focus required for running is reflected in his writing and vice versa. You don’t need to run marathons to get the same benefits. Walking, swimming or other low-impact physical activities can relieve stress, benefit your overall health and help you stay more focused on your writing. Exercise is also linked to sleeping better, and getting enough sleep is essential for maintaining focus.
Many writers do a lot of the mental work outside of the regular writing session. While making dinner, driving to work or waiting in line, they ponder character motivation, plot twists and structure. Then they turn up at a writing session primed to do nothing but write. Keeping your novel in mind during different parts of your day also makes it more a part of you so that less of a mental shift is required when you sit down to write. Combine this kind of planning ahead with the time limitation suggested above to see if a more rigorous approach helps your focus.
How many times have you sat down to write and found yourself in the kitchen doing dishes or engaged in some other distraction? One of the best ways to improve focus for writers is simply to remove distractions. It may be easier to simply go somewhere else, such as a library or coffee shop. However, if there is a space in your home where you can isolate yourself from other distractions, this may work as well. Sometimes it is as simple as adding an extra obstacle that gives you the needed moment or two to notice that you are losing focus. It can be far too easy to start engaging in a distracting activity while hardly noticing that you are doing it. For example, if you normally work in a room with the door closed, try locking the door. The extra step of unlocking the door as you jump up to “just” run a quick load of laundry might be enough to stop you.
There is one distraction that is probably one of the biggest challenges of all for writers, and it needs its own discussion:
Avoid extra distractions on the internet
The internet has been both a boon and a curse for writers. It can connect you with other writers and resources and can make research far more efficient. But if cat videos and internet memes are your favourite entertainment, it can suck all the free time out of your day before you realise it. You may think you are just hopping online, but before you know it, ten, twenty or thirty or minutes or more can be gone.
It’s best if you avoid trying to look up facts in the middle of a writing session, but in many cases, more drastic measures may be necessary. Some writers turn off their wireless router or use a computer for writing that is not connected to the internet. Another alternative would be to write somewhere where you have no internet access. In all of these cases, you also need to make sure that other devices, such as phone as tablets, are out of reach. Separate the time you spend running over challenges with your online writing groups or talking with your writing coach from the time you spend writing, so that you can stay focused and keep track of your progress.
There are also apps and add-ons you can add to your browser that will prevent you from spending too much time on time-wasting sites. You set the parameters according to your needs and habits. Anti-Social and Self Control are two of a number of writing tools that can help you with this by preventing you from visiting problem sites during certain times of day or limiting how much time you can spend there.
Try the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is a popular and adaptable approach to productivity. In its original form, it breaks tasks down into 25-minute periods with a rest period of 3-5 minutes and a longer break after every four so-called Pomodoros. In addition to encouraging short bursts of focus and productivity, the method also aims to provide the physical stimuli of the ticking and ringing timer to encourage the habit of working and resting.
Get the soundtrack you need to write
Do you write best with the low murmur of a coffee shop around you, with music or with absolute silence? What you are hearing or not hearing can be the key to keeping you focused. If you prefer absolute silence, look into noise-cancelling headphones. If you need something more low-tech and economical, ear plugs may do the trick. There are a number of apps and tools that can provide a background of white noise or even the sounds of a coffee shop if you can’t get to one to do your writing. Coffitivity is one such app for writers.
Take a meditative approach
One aspect of meditating is learning to note thoughts that arise without attaching to them. Some experts advocate a similar approach to dealing with distraction. Distraction is often something we engage in mindlessly: Without realising it, we’ve been on a social media site for fifteen minutes or find ourselves doing some seemingly urgent household task. Training yourself to notice distracting thoughts rather than getting swept up in them can be an excellent way of learning to focus more over the long term. Notice how the distractions makes you feel physically. Remind yourself of the task in front of you, and gently guide yourself back to the work at hand.
All writers struggle with focus from time to time, but this struggle can be combated with a variety of tools both internal and external. You can use apps and add-ons to stop you from visiting distracting sites or to provide you with ambient noise to strengthen your creativity. Alternately, you can use other activities to help improve your focus in general and train yourself to fight distraction simply through a greater awareness of your own thought processes. At different times, some approaches may work better for you than others.
Once you’ve implemented some of the tips above and have some more of your novel written, find fellow writers on Now Novel and get helpful feedback on your writing.