If you don’t mind, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you a story. Assuming you are a writer, you will be fine with this because writers like stories. So I’m going to go ahead and tell one. I hope you like it.
Once upon a time there was a writer who started writing a story but couldn’t focus so she stopped.
Have you ever thought about how boring reading would be if every writer who couldn’t focus on finishing what they started just … never bothered to finish?
What a world that would be.
Now that you have made it past the “fold” — which you might not even see if you are stumbling upon this post from an external source — let me tell you the real story.
It was Sunday evening, around 6PM central standard time. I was only about halfway done with the work I had planned to do that day, and due to circumstances completely out of my control (as so many of them often are), I returned to my desk frustrated and worried and really, really feeling like I needed to punch an inanimate object.
So I decided, as you do, that I was going to try writing something to get my mind off what was bothering me.
Guess what? It didn’t work … until I set my writing aside, dealt with some of the things that were making it impossible for me to focus, and then returned to my work giving myself permission to write with a much clearer mind.
When you’re having a hard time focusing, it’s tempting to just walk away defeated. But things don’t have to end that way. You can regain control of your focus and point it in the right direction — with the right strategies in hand.
Take care of the things occupying your mind that you do have some control over. Need to send an email that you figured could wait until after you finished your writing for the day? You might not even realize it’s taking up valuable brain space. But it is. Sometimes, the best solution to a “focus problem” is taking 10 to 15 minutes to complete a few small tasks taking up room on your mental to-do list.
The human brain can only hold so much information at once. And while it’s possible to temporarily distract ourselves from our worries through writing, sometimes even that isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to send that text, or make that phone call, or buy that thing, or find that missing object.
Yes, there is always the potential for further distraction when you start doing something other than writing. A good solution, in this case, would be to put writing at the end of your task list — not necessarily waiting until the end of the day (unless that’s what works for you), but making sure your mind is as clear as it can be before you start writing.
Don’t worry about writing it ‘perfectly’ the first time. Perfectionism has the power to stop your productivity even before you sit down to work on something. We worry so much about producing something polished and publishing-ready on our first try that we often find ourselves distracted, overwhelmed, and unmotivated.
Here’s a secret: No one writes anything perfectly on the first try. No one. When you sit down to work on something from the beginning, you are composing a draft. They are supposed to have flaws. That is the point.
First drafts are not meant to be final drafts. You should never be submitting or publishing a first draft anyway, even if you’re somehow convinced you don’t need to even look your work over before sending it off or hitting that publish button. Writing is not something that happens quickly. You will always need to go back and, at the very least, reread.
So you might as well focus on getting that first draft done, to the best of your ability, knowing you can and will go back and make it even better once the hardest part is done.
Turn your distraction(s) into your reward(s). We all get distracted. Every single one of us. Sometimes we start blog posts about not being able to focus and don’t go back in to finish them for several months (not that I know what that’s like from personal experience or anything).
It’s tough to focus when there are so many other (seemingly equally important) things going on around you. There’s that new TV show everyone at work has been talking about. And you’ve really been meaning to make that cool recipe you saw on Facebook. Speaking of Facebook … you keep checking it, just in case. There are books to read! People to call! Your dog needs all the belly rubs.
But also, work. You know, that thing you have to do in order to (eventually, if not immediately) get paid? You actually have to sit down to write. And when you’re having a hard time focusing, even the most intense feelings of motivation and inspiration can’t help you. So what do you do about it?
Simple — well, not really, but simpler than not knowing what to do at all: Take the distractions that are occupying the majority of your focus and transform them into potential rewards. You really, really want to watch that new Netflix documentary. It seems so much more interesting and fun than writing a blog post or an article or working on your book for the four thousandth day in a row.
So instead of watching that documentary IN PLACE OF doing your work, why not promise yourself a guilt-free viewing of the same documentary AFTER your work has already been completed?
Yes, it takes a lot of self-control not to turn on Netflix until after you’ve written at least some of the things. I get that. But self-control in this regard is just one of those things you have to practice and refine. Instant gratification is quite literally a writer’s worst enemy. You can’t always sit down expecting to get exactly what you want “right now.” Writing requires patience. Long hours. Often months of waiting and working and wondering if you’re doing the right things.
You need a reward — something to look forward to; something that keeps you going, especially on the toughest days. Your distractions can become the very things that indirectly lead to your success.
Not being able to focus is tough. But you can still accomplish great things if you’re willing to put in your best effort every single time you sit down to Make Words Happen.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.