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6 Simple Ways to Stay Focused

This is a guest post by Phoebe Quinn.

I call it ‘butterfly brain’. Your brain is a garden of beautiful flowers and your focus is a butterfly, going from flower to flower and never settling anywhere.

It’s why I end up having conversations with people that are constantly punctuated with anyway, back to the point…

It’s probably screens and quick-fix social media that’s killing our attention span - that, and the ability to just leave a tab waiting for when you ‘feel like’ finishing that quiz on what kind of pasta shape you are. (I’m farfalle. The more you know.)

Whatever it is, I needed a way round it and, after extensive trial and error, I have found six very simple ways to stay focused and get stuff done.

1. Before you start, set aside your Planning Time and stick to it.

I am a bullet-journal-and-lists kind of person, so all my planning is done in notebooks. Before I start writing - before I even open my manuscript - I set a timer for half an hour and spend that whole time planning. What am I doing today? What do I need to cover? Am I aiming to finish a chapter, or just a few scenes? Do I have a word count goal? Am I having any difficulties with my plot or characters at the moment? And so on.

Have you ever heard that it takes twenty minutes for your brain to get ‘in the zone’? There’s a reason why people warm up at the gym: it’s to get the blood pumping and the muscles prepared for the work they’re about to do.

During this period, your brain is getting back into the story and getting ready to do some hard work. Skipping this step, or cutting it short, is like trying to lift a huge weight without stretching first: it will be much harder than it needs to be, you won’t perform as well as you’d like, and you risk injuring yourself (okay, there’s little physical risk when it comes to writing, but you do risk that blank feeling when you just don’t know what to write).

2. Sprints are better than marathons.

My usual word count goal is 1500 in a session. To some of you that may seem daunting; to others, it may be unambitious. So pick a realistic word count goal - or chapter goal, or pages, whatever works for you - and break it down.

I use a pomodoro timer extension on Chrome, which allows me to work in 25-minute sprints (there’s an online version of it here). You can set a timer on your phone or on your watch, whatever works. Write for no more than half an hour, then take a five minute break. And then do it again. And again. And again. You’ll find it much easier than sitting down and thinking you’ll write for hours and hours at a time, because, as romantic as it sounds, you’ll just get tired and cranky and probably need to wee.

3. Sprinters get trophies and medals. You should too.

Okay, maybe not an actual medal, but once you’ve reached your goal you should give yourself a reward. For some people that may just be the smug satisfaction of having achieved a goal. For some, it’s a favourite food, or an episode of a TV show. Rewarding yourself with something you’ve sacrificed to write - because writing takes time, and something has to give - is a great way to stay motivated, because it feels like you’re getting the best of all world.

And hey, if you want to make yourself a medal, go for it. No one’s judging you.

4. Acknowledge your progress.

I have a word-count graph and a chapter completion record. Both of these include target dates and dates I actually achieved that goal, so if I’m pushing ahead I can be extra smug, and if I’m falling behind I can make plans to get back on track. Either way, at any point I can look back and see how far I’ve gone. This is especially useful in that middle-stage valley of despair, where you are definitely a rubbish writer and this is absolutely the worst thing you’ve ever written. (For future reference: no you’re not, and no it isn’t.)

5. Have an accountability partner.

Cheerleader or whip-cracker, writer or non-writer, whatever works for you. I’ve gone for the whip-cracker non-writer combination and he helps me to stay disciplined, because my natural habitat is a cosy duvet and not my computer chair. Someone shouting you can do it! every few days, or a few stern messages about getting your lazy ass off the sofa, takes away your free pass to think ah, I’m tired/I’ve been working hard recently/there’s that new show I want to watch/I really fancy cooking a five-course dinner for myself tonight for some reason.

6. The if-all-else-fails option: Shut the world down, or shut down your work in progress.

If you really can’t focus, take away your distractions. If you fiddle with your music player, write in silence. If you browse the web, install a blocker. If you make endless mugs of coffee, make one massive pot and bring it to your desk. Take away every distraction you can think of.

Look, at this point you may need to question whether you really want to write what you’re working on. At a very basic level you should want to write this story. If you can’t sit down with it for more than five minutes, it may be worth questioning if it’s what you really want to be working on right now.

Follow Phoebe Quinn on Twitter: @_phoebe_quinn

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