Life gets crazy. It’s not uncommon for me to go several days without having time to write. And then, when I do sit down with plans to churn out several thousand words, I find myself unable to concentrate. My attention wanders all over the place, because I’m out of practice.
Concentration is a skill that can be developed and improved over time. I’ve tried most of the usual techniques, with varying degrees of success.
These are commonsense, quick-fix steps, such as finding a quiet place to work, turning off the wi-fi, hiring a babysitter, or clearing your desk of clutter. In theory, they all sound perfectly logical. In reality, I’ve been known to find all new distractions to steal my attention. Suddenly the furniture needs dusting, or the books on the shelf need to be reorganized by color.
Take a brisk, ten-minute walk. Vacuum the living room. Start a load of laundry. All valid and reasonable ways to get the blood flowing and reset your wandering mind. But I find that if I get up from the computer, even for five minutes, once I sit down again (if at all) it takes me another half hour to settle back into work mode.
This is an ideal way to clear your mind. It works for me every time. Puts me right to sleep.
If the most obvious solutions aren’t working for you, consider this: the four most common obstacles to a productive work environment are boredom, stress, lack of sleep, and hunger. The trick is to know yourself and your patterns, so you can initiate proactive prevention. If you get the munchies while you write, keep snacks close at hand. (Although I’ve found that the best snack for keeping me on task—peanut M&Ms—is also the absolute worst thing for my waistline.) Getting enough sleep the night before is important, but not always possible. Try a 20-minute power nap, if you can squeeze one in. And music is an excellent way to fight boredom, as long as you choose something that inspires you without disrupting your concentration.
Stress, I believe, is a more complicated problem. Maybe your mind is spinning and you can’t seem to let go of your worries. Or, in the opposite extreme, your mind is blank, the screen is blank, and you can’t think of a single thing to type. Engaging with another human being is often the best way to snap out of both scenarios. Send a text to your spouse or email a writing buddy, just to get your concerns out in the open. Even if they don’t respond right away, you have freed up space in your overactive imagination for more creative pursuits.
For another perspective on how to increase concentration, I went looking for research-based articles that explore less conventional techniques. According to the Wall Street Journal, for example, doodling can actually help boost memory and creativity.
Don’t you love the idea of doodling away distraction? I plan to give it a try this week, lack of artistic talent notwithstanding.
And the Atlantic has a fantastic article from 2013 about how certain “brain-training games” can improve cognitive function and fight the natural effects of aging on mental engagement.
Even crossword puzzles and memorization games can sharpen your focus. Maybe all those hours I spend playing Scramble with Friends aren’t a waste of time, after all!
Whether we like it or not, the ability to focus for long-ish periods of time is an essential skill for writers. Finding the best way to improve your attention span may require some trial and error, but the increase in productivity is well worth the effort.
Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.