Tag Archives | focus

The Secret to Writing More Than You Ever Thought Possible

Cartoon guy with crayonTo get more writing done, you could get up earlier, or stay up later.  To get more writing done you could close the door to your office and post a sign threatening death and dismemberment to anyone who enters.  You could escape to the coffee shop or go on a retreat. You could run away from home or refuse to leave it.

All of those are great ideas for getting writing done.  But none of them are worth the powder to blow them to hell without this one thing.  And so, da da da dum….the secret to getting more writing done than you ever thought possible is…wait for it…

Focus!

I swear, in this day and age, focus is more precious than a king's treasures.  We have so many distractions pressing in on us all day, every day.  (For an amazing infographic that shows how much data is created every minute on the internet, click here.) And it's not just the internet. Some of us have families. (And don't think for a minute that once your kids are grown up, their distractions end. Ha! Then the grandchildren come along and it starts all over again.) Some have demanding jobs.  Or farms to manage. Or marathons to run.

All of these things combine to make focus a rare and twinkling jewel that is often hard to attain.  And since I am one of the most distractible humans on the planet (bright shiny object!) I have made a study of practices and techniques and even pills (yes, pills) that will help.  These are lessons learned the hard way, by me, the Queen of Beguilement. So here we go:

1. Know where you're going.  If you don't follow any of the other tips listed here, try this one.  It is the one that makes the most difference for me, hands down.  If I know what I'm going to write next, I'll get to the page and write it.  If I don't know, I stray onto the internet and before I know it, my time for writing is done.  A confused brain is a wandering brain.

2. Timed writing sprints.  Life saving.  Use the timer on your smart phone or find an app on the computer.  Set it for a pre-allotted period of time and then write and do nothing else until the timer goes off.  Then get up and walk around-sitting too long isn't good for you.  (Or get a stand-up desk.  I just did.) Start with 30 minutes and see how that works.  I've been working with 30-45 minute sprints.

3.  Remember, the writer is the one who stays in the room.  Last May, my daughter and I went to Seattle for the weekend.  We spent one glorious afternoon ensconced at a table at Elliott Bay Books.  She read design books and I read books on writing.  I perused a book by an author whose name escapes me and what impressed me was his quote, something to the effect that the writer is the one who stays in the room.  Because, I know I'm guilty of writing a sentence and then allowing myself to get distracted in the name of thinking.  Pay attention to how you work, you might find the same thing. So stay in the room.  This is actually a mindful practice that gets easier over time.

4. Chunk it down.  Sit down to write a book and you'll get totally overwhelmed.  But tell yourself that all you have to write is one paragraph–or one sentence–and that is something you can do.  So break your writing up into doable sections.  Remember what Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird–she keeps a small picture frame by her desk to remind herself that all she has to write is what she can see through the frame.

5.  Try a probiotic.  Here's that pill I promised you.  The good organisms that grow in your gut have a direct impact on your brain, and if you don't have a healthy stomach, you might have trouble focusing.  There's been a ton of research on this coming out recently.  You can read one article here

6.  Cultivate healthy thinking habits. When I'm stuck, or just need to think for a minute, I convince myself that taking a brief break on the internet will benefit me.  Ha! There's a rabbit hole, for sure.  What does work is for me to get up and walk around the house, or step outside for a minute.  It works for me to knit a row or two, or go put a load of laundry in the washing machine, or drink a glass of water.  I need to remember these healthy habits and use them instead of the unhealthy ones.

7.  Remember your passion.  A passionate mind is a focused mind.  When was the last time you were so engaged in a project that time passed and you were unaware of it?  That's focus at its highest level.  And passion can take you there.

8.  Meditate.  I hate this one, but it works, if for no other reason than it calms your mind.  And a calm mind is a focused mind.  I'm an on-again, off-again meditator, and I've probably not ever done it long enough at one stretch to really reap the full benefits of it, but I know when I do do it how much it helps.

9.  Get your ya-yas out.  Otherwise known as journaling.  When your brain is full of things you have to do, people you're holding grudges against, or other minutia of daily life, it is not a well-functioning brain.  It is an overloaded brain.  One way to deal with this is to dump it all on the page.  Journal first thing in the morning or last thing at night.  Use your journal as a brain dump, putting it all out there so your mind doesn't have to deal with it.

10.  Keep a notepad, scratch paper or index cards next to your computer.  When you have an idea that distracts you–a thought for a different part of the project, something you forgot to do, an item to add to the grocery list–note it and carry on with your writing.  Then make a time to go through all your jottings and deal with it accordingly.  This is an enormously helpful practice.

So those are my hard-won ideas about focus, what are yours?

Photo by julosstock.

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Overcoming a Bad Writing Session

I had a lousy writing session the other day.  I roused myself early and got right to the computer (well, after my first-thing-in-the-morning glass of water with apple cider vinegar and Stevia and then, of course, coffee).  But nothing happened.  I just couldn't seem to connect with my WIP.

Usually this would be cause for beating myself up.  And it was, at first.  I told myself I was stupid, lazy, a dumb jerk for reading trivial internet stories rather than writing. But then I realized something–this attitude wasn't helping.

I know, duh.

But when you're in it–when you are deeply ensconced in a beating-yourself-up session, it can be difficult to pull yourself out of it.   And furthermore, one bad writing session can derail you for days, weeks even. So I decided I better try to nip it in the bud.  And instead of continuing the beating session, I tried to figure out why the writing didn't go well.

Here's what I came up with:

1.  I was distracted.  I know, distraction is pretty much a state of being in our constantly-connected, social media world.  But yesterday it was even worse than usual.  I'd spent the weekend updating my Mac's operating system, and for reasons unclear to me was not able to update Firefox as well.  So I downloaded Chrome (which I now love) and that created all kinds of changes and the necessity for more updating, including locating passwords, which I continued to uncover as I opened pages and signed in.  

2.  I didn't know where I was going.  I'd finished one chapter, and was starting on the next.  But, it's early on in this project, and because I'm excited about it, I've not yet taken the time to do the prep work I usually do–create character dossiers, write about settings, figure out a loose outline for the plot.  I thought the momentum of finishing chapter one would carry me through, but because I didn't know what happened next, I got stalled.

3.  I wasn't fully committed.  I wrote recently about being torn between two loves.  I decided to allow myself to write the first chapter of this new project–it was begging to come out–and then see how I felt.  I felt good about it, really good, excited in a way I haven't been with my other novel.  But I also felt guilty about abandoning it.  (Although, as we know, nothing is ever wasted in writing.  It will be waiting for me when I finish this one, or it will be incorporated into something else.) So I was still waffling about whether to move forward with it–not conducive to writing.

I felt much better after analyzing what happened, because I could see that it wasn't because I was a lazy, distractable person, but that there were real reasons for my bad writing session.  And because there were real reasons, I could change them in the future.

Which I did.  This morning.  And got right back to it.  

What stops you from a good writing session?

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What Do You Focus On?

Estock_commonswiki_328901_hWhat you put your attention on grows.  It's that simple.

So if you put your attention on how wonderful it is to write every day, that writing habit will grow.  If you focus on how much fun it is to submit to agents (I'm feeling funny today), you'll do more of it. If you think about your novel when you're not writing, you'll spend more time on it.  That's just the way of the world.

So, piece of cake, right?  Just focus away and off you'll go.

Would that it was that simple.  Because in reality the art of focus is incredibly complex, or at least we humans make it so.

It takes discipline and work to train your attention to writing every day.  Usually, what happens in our brains is a thought process like this:

Oh my God, I didn't write today!  I'm a lazy idiot!  I can never get a writing habit going! I'll never finish my novel!

And then we're focusing on the exact condition we don't want to create–not writing.

Negative thoughts, like all forms of fear, are sneaky beasts.  They can be so ingrained that they form a constant low-level litany of which we're barely aware as we go about out days.  It's the proverbial vicious cycle:  you think negative thoughts–>you create negative conditions–>and then you think more negative thoughts.

Heavy sigh.

What's a writer to do to get her focus on the right things?  Here are some suggestions:

1.  Attentional Training.  This is pretty much a fancy word for meditation that I learned in a book by Jonathan Fields.  You can do any version of it you want: zazen, TM, insight mantra, or just close your eyes and take a few deep breathes throughout the day.  Honestly, it's a pain in the butt, and it is helpful for every aspect of your life, including your creativity and your spirituality.  If you're like me, you'll probably be convinced that you're not doing it right, but no matter how you do it, the practice really helps.

2. Active Attentional Training.  And this is the same as above only, as the name implies, in an active fashion.  So, it's when you are performing sports, or playing music, or, more to my tastes, knitting, sewing, weeding, even mowing the lawn (I do actually do that once in a while–with a push mower even).    You're doing AAT when  you're involved in a repetitive activity that does not require constant attention, or if you're engaging in an activity driven by speed, novelty, or intense bursts of concentration.  A recent example of this for me was doing homework for a class I took at church last week.  I had to read some fairly dense texts and process them mentally.

3.  Eternal vigilance.  Like I said earlier, it is a constant process.   You have to watch and monitor your thoughts endlessly.  But, they are your thoughts, and you are going to have them whatever you do, so you might as well work at turning negative ones into positive ones.  It's a lot more pleasant than, say, rerunning the fight with your boyfriend all day.

4.  Show up.  What's the famous Woody Allen quote? Something along the lines of, "99% of success is showing up."  So very true.  If you keep showing up at your writing chair day after day after day you're training yourself to eventually start focusing.  Because staring at a blank screen does get boring.

5.  Respect the work.  When we don't show up, when we don't focus our attention, we're not respecting the work, or  ourselves.  And what's the point of calling yourself a writer if you're not respecting your profession?  Respecting the work leads to better focus and better focus leads to better work which leads to more respect. Another one of those cycles, this one not so vicious.

So, there you have it, some tips on focus.  Got any of your own you'd like to share?

Photo by Julo, from Wikimedia commons.

 

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Fear and Focus

Photoxpress_1687829We don't always think of fear and focus at the same time, but there's very good reason to pair them.

Focus.  It's what we all desire, what gets the writing done.  Because the words don't go on the page without it.

Fear.  It's often what keeps us from focusing.

The kinds of fears we writers and creative types deal with are the insidious ones.  They may very well be so insidious that we don't even recognize them as fears.  Instead, fears can masquerade as a lack of focus. Have you ever told yourself any of the following when it came time to write?

I don't need to work on the book today

–The kitchen floor needs washing.  I better do it now, instead of writing.

–I need to check my email.

–Writing is too hard, I'll look at Facebook instead

Perhaps some of the following fears are hiding behind this sudden desire to do something, anything, other than write:

Not knowing what to write

–Not knowing how to write

–Going deep

–Not being good enough

–Being too good

–Putting yourself and your words out in the world.

Interestingly, dealing with issues of focus takes immediate care of many, if not all, of these fears.  Why? Because choosing to focus is choosing to be in the moment.  Choosing fear is opting to be mired in the past or worry about the future.  You can't do either when you firmly in the present.

So herewith, some strategies for both fear and focus.

1.  Remember that you are enough and have enough for what you need in this present moment.  You have all the tools you need to write or create.

2.  Have a curiosity about life instead of assuming an air of knowing everything.  Be present to the amazement of life.

3.  Move before you feel ready.  Send that story out even though you know it's not perfect, commit to writing a novel even though you don't know how.  Such leaps keep our creative selves alive and are one antidote to fear.

4. Stand for yourself.  Take responsibility for yourself and your work.  You committed to writing, now do it.  For some weird reason this always helps me with my fears.

5.  Meditate.  Everyone recommends it for a reason.  It really does help.

7.  Develop a morning ritual and/or spiritual practice that grounds and centers you.

8.  Do ONE thing at a time.  Multi-tasking is death to focus.  My tried and true trick is to set a timer for 30 minutes and only write during that time period.

9.  Work hard, play hard.  Focus and concentrate.  Then take a break and have some fun! 

10.  Don't forget physical exercise.  Move your body in some way, whether you like to take walks, do yoga or Qi Gong, swim or ride bikes.  Sometimes we just need to wear the old brain out to get rid of our fears!

Do you have strategies to accomplish focus and banish fear?  Please share.

 Photo from Photoexpress.

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What’s Right For You is Right For the World

On Monday, this was my morning: Everystockphoto_183379_m

  • I got out of bed feeling cranky and negative.
  • Got my coffee and went to my office, as usual.  The computer beckoned, so I went right to it and started in on email.  Wasn't time for anything else.
  • I didn't feel like walking.  So I didn't.
  • The rest of the day I felt unfocused and vaguely unhappy until I got myself in hand and started writing.

Yesterday, this was my morning:

  • I got out of bed and got my coffee, vaguely worried about being on time for a 10 AM appointment
  • Went to my office, ignored email, and wrote 1,000 words
  • Sat in my office chair and prayed and read my intentions.
  • Walked.
  • Stretched.
  • Drove to my daughters to let the chickens out and gather eggs.
  • Decided that rather than a protein bar eaten on the run, I needed to cook one of the fresh eggs for breakfast.  It was delicious.
  • Showered.
  • Made it to my 10 AM appointment with 5 minutes to spare.

The difference?

My mindset.  I decided to believe that it was possible to get everything done in time.  And I did.  And furthermore, the reason I was able to believe it was because I nailed those 1,000 words.  So here's the deal:

Mastering mindset begins with your morning routine.

Period. 

The way you start the day is the way your day will go.

And guess what?  If you're a writer down to your heart and soul as I am, I believe the very best way to start your day is with writing.  Because, when you are a writer down to your heart and soul like I am, writing is the most important thing to you.

And when you do the most important thing first, magic happens.  Because, truly, what is right for you is right for the world and somehow, I'm not quite sure how this happens, somehow the world rearranges itself so that everything else gets done.

My latest theory on why this magic occurs is that you're so excited by doing the work that you release all kinds of energy to speed through everything else.

But, really? It is simply magic, so trying to explain it is fruitless.  Instead, just do it.  Or find your own magical route to making everything right in the world. 

I'd love to hear your theories on this, as well as what kinds of routines work for you.

**Be sure to get your free Ebook, Jump Start Your Book With a Vision Board, by signing up to the right.  And if you want to know how powerful vision boards can be, read this post.

Photo by greenfinger, from Everystockphoto.

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Conjuring Clarity

 I work with writers and other creative types in a variety of ways, including one-hour sessions that help them to gain clarity about their work.  I do this through this very website and at events like Room to Write in Nashville, where I am the resident "book doctor" on call to guide writers.

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What I find over and over again is that confusion is common amongst us and it causes angst.   The two of these together make up that state often known as writer's block.

We're confused about:

Which project to write

How to write it.

When to write it.

Who to write it to.

How to get it out in the world once its written.

And this causes angst:

Because confusion creates paralysis.

Over and over again, I see this paralysis in writers.  But once we wade through the vast confusions our brains sometimes present us with, clarity rules.  And suddenly writing happens.

How can you gain clarity, short of hiring me or attending a retreat?  Here are some tips:

1.  Corral Multiple Projects.  We right-brained types have a lot of ideas, and every new idea is always the best one yet.  This riot of ideas is wonderful, and the envy of many left-brainers.  But it can also cause us not to finish projects.  Learn how many projects you can handle at once (its three for most people) and stick with that number.  Make notes of new ideas that occur and trust that you'll get to them in due time.

2.  Trust the Internal.  The world is an external-led machine.  We respond to telephone calls, tweets and emails that interrupt our flow.  We worry about what others think of us.  We decide we shouldn't do a project because its too controversial, too sweet, too whatever.  Instead of being externally-focused, learn to be internally-focused.  What's right for you?  Whats the project that makes your heart leap with joy? When can you turn off the internet and the phone and focus solely on your writing?

3.  Be Okay With Choice.  In order to get your creative ideas into the world of form, you're going to have to learn to exercise choice.  I'm the master of unfinished projects, but I'm training myself to finish them, no matter how much I fear criticism, or "failure."  Learn to choose your most important project and focus on it until it's done, with a couple of other secondary projects along for the ride.

4.  Chunk It Down.  Rome wasn't built in a day, it was built one brick at a time.  Or whatever building material they used.  Looking at a huge project such as a novel can be so overwhelming you'll never get to it.  But start to think of it in terms of chapters, or better yet scenes that form parts of chapters, and it looks doable.

5.  Work With Time.  Work on your most important project first if you can.  If writing a novel is your main goal, get up early and get your work session done first thing.  This reinforces the internal point-of-view mentioned above–that your work and your ideas are the most important thing.

Give these tips a try and let me know how they work out for you.  And if you have some tips of your own, feel free to share them.

Photo by pll, from Everystockphoto.

7

Writing and Laundry: Constantly Seeking Zen Moments

My daughter is grown and gone, married now and thinking about having kids of her own (if the stupid army would ever let her husband come home).

But sometimes often she comes to the house to do her laundry.  Which is why, last week, I ended up down the basement folding a large load of clothes from the dryer, which needed to be done before I could do my own laundry.

I will admit, I was feeling the wee-est bit resentful.

But then I started thinking about when she was a baby and I washed diapers.  (Yes, Virginia, there was a day when women washed their own diapers.)  A friend–older, wiser, and more experienced as a mother–had told me how much she loved doing laundry for her four children, folding the soft, white diapers, the tiny onesies, the little pink and blue sleepers.  So every time I started to get bored or cranky about doing laundry back then, I'd remember her words and try to pull myself back into it by focusing on the good parts of the task.

My friend was very Zen, though she didn't know it and actually considered herself a born-again Christian.  But being where you are, appreciating it, and staying present, is all very Zen, as I have learned and continue to learn from my Zen friend Derek.

My best writing times are Zen, too.  I'm constantly working to find the magic key to being present, staying in the flow, and deal with distractions (ie, ignore them).  I find it easy to be totally engaged when I'm doing my own work, less so when I'm working on assignments for others.  But it is imperative that I find ways to focus and be present no matter what I'm doing.  So here are some of the tricks I've learned:

1.  Shut down all inboxes.  This will allow you to resist the urge to check email, just real quick, and see if anybody has written you. Which then leads to the even more irresistible urge to answer them.  And by the time you've answered them, yet another one has come in…You may also wish to put your phone on silent and close the office door.

2.  Set an intention.  Sit quietly for a few moments (see below) and focus on what you want to accomplish.  Ponder what this will take, or review your notes before you launch in.

3.  Meditate or breathe deeply for a few minutes before launching into a writing session.  This can clear your mind and allow you to begin refreshed.  You can also do a written meditation and get the dreck out on the page

4.  Set a time limit.  Dave Lakhani talks about the power of an hour, the idea being that you set aside an hour, eliminate all distractions, set your intention to write, set a timer, take a deep breath and dive in for the duration.  Short, focused bursts of writing can really get the job done.

5.  Keep a notepad or a stack of index cards beside your computer to jot ideas down.  Then, when you get a flash of brilliance, you can make a quick note of it to peruse later.  This also prevents you from stopping in the middle of what you are doing and googling your latest idea, which can then lead to a lengthy distraction through the internet.

6.  Buy a brain entrainment CD which can help you stay focused.  I like the ones here.

7.  If your attention wavers, bring yourself back with a quick breathing exercise you've figured out ahead of time (say, take three deep breaths) or a statement.  One I've used successfully is, "Spirit come back to me, I need you here with me now."  A bit odd, I know, but I got it from a Christiane Northrup newsletter years ago and I've always liked the ring of it.

8.  Take breaks.  Do an hour and then get up and move.  I know I'm guilty of becoming one with the computer and sitting for so long that my knees creak and all my muscles complain when I finally do get up.  Much better for mind and body to move regularly.

Those are my tricks for finding Zen states in writing.  Anybody have any others?

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