Hey, focus! Focus on your writing!
… Easier said than done, right? Trust me, I know very, very well, how much so. As writers, we all want focus. We crave it, because it is instrumental in our craft.
We need focus to finish, and finishing is the basis for being able to complete our work - we need a first draft, if we ever want to have a finished book, right?
But in our current world, distractions are everywhere. So how exactly are we supposed to focus? Well, in this episode, we will, will give you the inside scoop on how to build yours to create a writing life you’ll love.
Believe it or not, these aren’t even all the aspects that play into finding our focus - you’ll have to listen to the episode to learn them all!
[02:33] We basically have the attention span of a goldfish right now, so it's not just you.
[02:59] When we're trying to do this kind of deep, creative work that requires concentration and requires focus, we are really running counterculture.
[06:37] And, focus is a necessary precursor, a necessary precondition, for achieving flow.
[08:46] I say to myself, “This is important to me. I intend to carve out the time to write.”
[15:17] So, these are the rituals I have, and I make my writing space, my writing time, as pleasurable as possible.
[25:38] Writing anything, and getting it to be good, is a very iterative process.
[26:55] Faced with a problem, we figure out the solution, and we go back to it time and time again.
Links from today’s episode:
Intro: Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt in chair getting those words on the page. This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.
Rhonda Douglas: Well, hey there, writer. How are you? This is a solo episode. So, I mentioned at the start of the season, I was gonna do occasional episodes that are just me. So it's just me with you today. Hello, hope you're having a fabulous day, wherever you are. Today, I wanna talk about distraction free writing. So <laugh>, let's be real about this, okay? We live in an incredibly scattered, distractable, unfocused world, and our brains are just not—we just haven't evolved with the kind of brain that can cope with this. So, if you feel completely scattered and distracted when you sit down to write, uh, so much so that it really interferes with your ability to write, then you are not alone. Most of us—meaning like most humans, nevermind anybody trying to write a book—most humans are really having significant focus problems, right? Talk to any of your friends, and they're gonna tell you that their attention span has gone from being able to comfortably work on something for an hour or two hours or more, down to 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes.
Rhonda: We basically have the attention span of a goldfish right now, so it's not just you. So that's the first thing. It's not you. But because we live in this incredibly distractable, scattered, unfocused world, we are trying to do something—when we wanna do the kind of work that Cal Newport refers to as deep work—that's a great book, by the way, if you don't have it, I highly recommend—Deep Work by Cal Newport. When we're, we're trying to do this kind of, uh, deep, creative work that requires concentration and requires focus, we are really running counterculture. We are running against the prevailing patterns and systems in the world. And, so, I tell all my first book Finish Students, “you've gotta be fierce with your focus.” You have to decide that getting focused in order to write is one of the most important things in your life, and you are willing to do what it takes.
Rhonda: You need to become a problem solver in service of your own focus. You need to own your personal responsibility and take personal power. Just take, seize <laugh>, seize the power, people! But, take personal responsibility and say, “you know what? I don't care what the rest of the world is doing. I am going to improve my focus. I am fierce about my focus.” That's what I want for you, okay? So, I'm gonna talk to you about a few things that I have done that have radically shifted my ability to focus. And I am talking about going from, um, the kind of thing where you've got tabs open—a typical thing for me, in my work life—used to be—I would be on a Zoom call while also being pinged in the chat, uh, g-chat, while also trying to clear some email, and not looking like I'm doing it, um, while also maybe getting pinged on Skype, uh, or somebody trying to reach me in the Zoom chat.
Rhonda: And that's before we even talk about all the tabs I have open on my computer, and before we even talk about the things going on on my phone. Was it any wonder <laugh> I couldn't focus, and had the attention span of a goldfish? Um, and it used to really bother me. I also thought, maybe something was wrong with my brain. I was experience-experiencing such a lack of concentration, such a lack of ability to focus, in a kind of overall brain fog, that I started to worry for my brain health. So because I'm the kind of geek that I am, I did also go deep on the brain science, and try to figure out what the heck is going on. Couple of books I really recommend, if you wanna geek out like I did, I really recommend a book called Stolen Focus by Johann Hari.
Rhonda: And then I also mentioned Deep Work, by Cal Newport. Uh, the other book I love is Free to Focus, by Michael Hyatt, and I-I use his planning system and so on, so I recommend that one as well. But here are the things that really have helped me write without distractions, and improve my ability to focus overall. Some of these are easy for you to implement, and some of them, quite frankly, take a little more… fierceness, a little more of you deciding, “you know what, it's really important to me to go from being able to focus for 10 minutes to being able to focus for two hours,” which I can now do. I now routinely have the kind of, you know, immersed, completely in-flow writing experience that results in me looking up after two hours, with a numb butt, going, “what, where am I? What has happened?”
Rhonda: Um, because I've had such a fabulous focusing experience. Um, and the reason this is so important is that I want—I know that my best creative work comes when I am able to achieve a state of flow on a regular basis. And, focus is a necessary precursor, a necessary precondition, for achieving flow. And, so, I gotta have more of it, needed in my life. Plus, I just really love my life, when I'm able to focus more. I think that I'm frankly a more patient person. I know that I get more done, and I know I enjoy the process of doing it. I enjoy the process of writing, when I'm in that flow state. I'm not fighting it. I'm not having to fight myself. So I absolutely love it. So this is what I want for you as well. So let's dive in, to the things that have really helped me be able to focus and write without distractions.
Rhonda: So, if you find yourself sitting down to write and not being able to concentrate, or not even being able to get to, um, the place where you're able to write, you need to become that person, who, controls their own mind and is able to focus. So, the first thing I want you to do, is think about your intention. So I call this “setting an intention.” It's just really simple, and I set the intention to write. I tell myself that I'm a writer and I intend to write. Writing is something that is important to me, and so I set that intention. I do that when I have my calendar in front of me for the week, and I look at my calendar. If you go to, um, if you go to my website, resilient writers.com, you will find—if you don't already have it—you will find a Writers Weekly planner there.
Rhonda: And that's where I talk about the different kinds of time that I believe you can find as a writer, and how to do that. And so, if you have that, you know that I like to look at writing as something I do every week. So, I visualize myself sitting at my desk writing in the time that I've allotted, and I look at my week, and I set appointments, for when I'm going to write. Often it's with the Flow Studio community writing session, but I have other writing times as well. So I set that intention. I say to myself, “this is important to me. I intend to carve out the work.” And then I visualize a—visualize myself, sitting there writing. And this doesn't take a lot of time. We're talking about something—I'm looking at my calendar, deep breath. I'm a writer, I'm gonna be writing this week.
Rhonda: And then I look for the spaces where I can get 45 minutes, 90 minutes, whatever, and sometimes 20 minute sessions. And I put those in my week, as though they are an appointment that I cannot miss. Okay? The other thing that I do, is I try to identify my personal best times to write. So these are the times when I have the best energy for writing. So for me, that's the morning. I love a writing session in the morning. It's when I feel most like my brain is most alive and all the synapses are firing. I can't always work in the morning. And so I also know that I have a second best time, okay? For me, that's about 4:00 PM in the afternoon, near the-the end of the day, I get like a little burst of energy. So if I can't write first thing, I'm gonna try and write the next best thing, okay?
Rhonda: So, I'm really conscious of my energy levels and I'm trying to schedule my writing sessions in those times when my energy level makes it easier for me to focus. So that's important. Don't give everything else in your life your best focus, and then wonder why you're too tired to write. You have to be fierce about this. You have to look at your schedule and say, “I'm gonna write for 30 minutes at 4:00 PM or for 30 minutes at 7:00 AM I.” have the kind of schedule that where my mornings are often my busiest time. So I would prefer to write during the week at 7:00 AM, but often I can't. And that's okay. I'm not gonna turn that into something of, “well, if I can't write at 7:00 AM I guess I'm not destined to write.” Come on, let's take the drama out of this. Can't write at 7:00 AM, write at 4:00 PM instead.
Rhonda: Can't write for 90 minutes? Fine. Write for 20 minutes instead. All right? The other thing I do, is I clear my head. I do this in a couple of ways. If you're in the Writer's Flow studio with me, you know that we do a centering exercise every single time we sit down to write. And that's because I want to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, so that my brain—my amygdala, my reticular activating system—are working for me, not against me, okay? And, so I'm triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. How do I do that? Couple of ways. There's quite a number of ways you can do this. I love deep breathing. That's just in through your nose, out through your mouth <exhale>. Set a timer for three minutes. Do three minutes, then write. Find yourself feeling anxious in the middle of a session? Stop everything. Do three minutes of breathing, then write.
Rhonda: The other thing you can do—and a lot of us in the Writer's flow studio love this—is adult coloring. There's no stakes attached to adult coloring, right? You are not worried about “are you the world's best adult coloring? Is your adult coloring going to make the canon, or be nominated for the Booker Prize?” You are not worried about that. So, I have a Jane Austin, um, coloring book. I have some mandalas that I love to color. And, so, adult coloring—again, set a timer. Three minutes. If you're gonna write for 45 minutes, I want you to have three to five minutes for centering and grounding yourself, clearing your head, and triggering your parasympathetic nervous system at the start of every single writing system. This is huge. Just this one thing. If you do it, and you do it regularly and consistently, it's gonna transform your writing life.
Rhonda: The other thing I do is I keep a notepad. Um, and if I find myself feeling jittery because I have a lot of things, like “I-I'm too busy, I can't stop writing to, to write because I have to do this and I have to do this, and now I'm worried about this and I'm worried about that, and I'm worried about this other thing.” I have a notepad and I just write down all of the things to give my brain a place to hold them. Notepad by your desk, write down all the things, do your deep breathing or your adult coloring, and then write, okay? The other thing I do is I use the power of ritual, and I always advise people to create a writing ritual that works for them. Uh, I have a very pleasure-based writing ritual because I'm training my brain to see writing as something fabulous, something really, profoundly pleasurable, the most fun it's gonna have all day.
Rhonda: I did an interview with Elisabeth DeMariaffi, uh, the literary thriller writer, recently, and—it's coming out on the podcast soon—and she was saying that, um, she likes to see writing as like the best part of her day. And so I'm trying to train my brain, and I have now trained my brain, to the point where it sees writing is the best part of my day. And I do that by using a writing ritual. So I have, and I-I counsel everyone, um, to use the Five Senses, right? Uh, taste, touch, sight, hearing, and… there's one more taste <laugh>? Sight, hearing… smell, is the other one. I have something for each of these. So for smell, I light a beeswax candle. For, um, touch, I will either have a shawl that I wear when I write, or I might have a hot drink for—temperature’s really important to me around touch—for sight, I have framed quotes, like I have the Terry Project quote framed on my wall.
Rhonda: Uh, it says, “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” and, I have other quotes as well, but that's the one that comes immediately to mind, and it's up so that I can see it. Inspirational quotes work for me. Maybe you want a postcard that reminds you of a setting that is in your novel. I also have framed quotes, like I have the Terry Project quote framed on my wall. For taste, I have a little box of candy, and I have a little candy when I sit down to write. Uh, sometimes I used to use chocolate like Hershey's Kisses. I also have a mug that is in the theme of my—the theme of my novel. And in the winter months in particular, I'll have some hot chocolate or a nice herbal tea at night, or I might have coffee in the morning because hmm, coffee. Love the coffee, right?
Rhonda: So, these are the rituals I have, and I make my writing space, my writing time, as pleasurable as possible. I use a fountain pen, I listen to music. I'm at the point now where I'm like, Pavlov's dog, if you play Yo Yo Ma’s Bach cello concertos, I'm-I'm gonna write. That's just—I'm-I'm in it then, right? Um, but I love all of this. I just—it's the most fun I could have. I mean, almost, right? But really pleasurable. Really pleasurable. And that's what I want for you as well. So, take a minute now and just kind of brainstorm. Like if you, if you can grab a pen and paper where you are, write down the five senses, and figure out exactly how you would go about making your writing ritual as pleasurable as possible, according to the five senses.
Rhonda: Now, I listen to music. Some people might prefer to have headphones on and to be listening to, you know, background music of—background sounds, rather, of a coffee shop or something. If you like that, go for it. If you're the kind of person that concentrates with he-heavy metal music playing and you know, get your Metallica on. It doesn't matter. You have to know yourself. I read a study that found that students could concentrate and focus more easily, and were more productive, if they listened to baroque music while they worked. And so I have a focus playlist in addition to the Yo Yo Ma. Um, it's filled with Bach and Vivaldi, Mozart, so on, right? Could be—could be the placebo effect, but, hey. It works for me. Okay? These are the easier things. We are now moving into the harder things. Don't shoot the messenger, guys. These things work.
Rhonda: I want you to turn off the damn internet while you are writing. If I'm writing, no internet. Absolutely no internet while I am writing, okay? So, at this point, some of you are gonna go, “oh, but I need to research.” No, no, you don't. Research and writing are two separate activities. They are not the same thing. When I worked with Gail Anderson-Dargatz, she taught me about the power of square brackets. So when you hit something that you are gonna need to research—so for example, look up brand names for scalpels, right? Who, who produces scalpels? What do they look like?—You just insert square brackets and put “look up scalpels” in square bracket. And then you keep writing forward. And then you come back to it later at a separate time in your process and do your research. But you don't try to do it while you're writing.
Rhonda: Otherwise, you're gonna spend all your time going down rabbit holes on the internet, and that is not writing. Turn off the damn internet. If you can write by hand, fabulous. If you have an old laptop that, you know, it's kind of clunky, but it's fine, as long as you're saving things regularly, backing up your work? Great. Use that. Whatever you need to do to turn off the damn internet, do it. Okay, now we're into the harder stuff, physical separation from my cell phone. So, I used to use my cell phone as a timer, okay? So I do, uh, Pomodoros, highly recommend Pomodoros for focus. That's where you turn on a timer, focus for 25 minutes, take a break, for five minutes, and then do another 25 minutes, take a break. And then you do like three of these. You take a longer break. Google it, “Pomodoro technique.”
Rhonda: Love it. I-I swear to God, light comes down from the heavens when I am writing with the Pomodoro technique. It's amazing. In order to do that, I used to use my phone, and then, something would happen, even if I turned down the ringer, somebody would send me a WhatsApp or a text message and it would pop up on the screen and I was done. Or I would just have a moment of a little thought, like, um, “oh, this is hard right now.” And my mind would seek relief, and I would bounce to my phone. I put the phone in another room. I have a kitchen timer with a really annoying beep, um, a kitchen timer, and the iPhone either goes completely off—like physically turned off—or it's in another room. Now, do I feel twitchy when I do that? Yes I do, because I'm addicted to my phone like everybody else.
Rhonda: But I have learned to go longer and longer periods, ignoring the phone. Nearly everything can wait. Nearly everything can wait. If you have small kids, you can set up your phone so that if they text you, or your husband texts you, it overrides it. But I just wouldn't even do that. We're talking about a half hour. You can be unreachable for a half hour. You really, really can. I mean, look, if you're Justin Trudeau, maybe you can't. But most of us are not that important. We can get a half hour, 45 minutes, 90 minutes to ourselves, without needing to be contactable. I promise you it's possible. Turn off your phone, put it in another room. Okay, so speaking of hard things, I wanna talk about social media. If you are someone who spends a lot of time on social media, so that you are regularly getting the kind of notifications that are, uh—for example, your phone is telling you on a weekly basis that your time on screen, your screen time notification, right?
Rhonda: You get this little thing, it pops up and it says “you spent—your time was up by 30% last week for five hours a day,” right? If you're regularly getting those kinds, even three hours a day, what are we doing on Facebook for three hours a day, people? Come on, right? TikTok, oh my God, it's bad for our brain. It eats our brain. The more time you spend on social media, the more you will find that you cannot focus. It's not you, it's designed. These apps are designed to be addictive. They, they trigger all kinds of fun things in our brain that makes us want more. And so, in order to focus, we need less social media. You can delete social media from your phone. You can. You can take TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, all the things. For me, I also have to do when it's really bad, I have to delete, uh, the New York Times and all of the news things that I, that I connect with.
Rhonda: You can also go into your phone and turn all of the buttons on your phone, uh, gray, grayscale. They're way less appetizing, they're way less addictive that way. So get off the social media. It doesn't have to be forever, and it doesn't have to be no social media. If you take social media off your phone, you can still check it on your laptop and your desktop. Set a timer. Go in for 10 minutes at the end of the day, and enjoy connecting with friends and family on Facebook if that's what you do. Okay? Enjoy scrolling Instagram on your laptop if that's what you like to do. But you're not addicted to it in the same way, right? You're not on it all the time. And if you're thinking, you know, if you find this idea of this, really—the more anxiety-inducing you find this idea of taking social media off your phone, the more you need to do it. The more you need to do it.
Rhonda: It's eating your brain, and you need your brain for your creative work. So, that's the first thing I do, is when I find it really, you know—um, and recently I had to delete Instagram from my phone again because I was sick for a while. And while I was sick, I was lying in bed, completely bored outta my mind, and I was scrolling on Instagram, and I got addicted again. And I had to go through the process again of deleting it from my phone. Did I enjoy it? No. Didn't want to, had to do it anyway. Because I am fierce with my focus. I've made the decision that I'm a writer and I intend to write. And so I am fierce with my focus, and so I reduce my social media consumption.
Rhonda: 10 minutes a day, laptop or desktop, you’re fine. Now, every now and again, I actually will take a complete cold-turkey social media break, for at least two weeks or sometimes longer, if I'm really enjoying that break. I can't even tell you how transformative that is. Within days, I go from my ability to focus being like 10 to 15 minutes at a go, to 60 minutes, two hours, three hours. It's amazing. And the quality of my int-attention is also so much better. I'm not saying you have to go off all social media forever, but I do know that regular breaks, and less of it, are really good for you getting your creative work done, as well as for your mental and emotional health. We know this, right? We know this. Let's do it. The other thing I do is I set time limits when I write.
Rhonda: So I mentioned the Pomodoros. I set a timer. There is something freeing. Your brain loves certainty. And so if you sit down with no limit, your brain feels a little anxious. It starts to go, “when are we stopping? When are we stopping? When are we gonna have a break? When are we gonna have lunch? Are we—how long are we gonna be doing this?” Right? So if you tell your brain, “you know what, brain, I got a timer here. 30 minutes is all we're doing right now.” Your brain just relaxes. It just quiets things. Okay? I think the other thing we have to do, and this is kind of my last real tip, is we have to give up the idea that we are writing the perfect book right now. I admire the aspiration for artistic excellence. I think it's important, I think it keeps us moving forward as artists, and I think that it makes for great books.
Rhonda: So I get it. You want to write good work. You—it is not possible to write the perfect book right now in this moment. And the more you try, the more you hold onto the idea that you are gonna sit down—always, it's always gonna just flow from your pen as though it's being dictated by the muses, and you are never gonna have to do anything more than a quick spell-check on that sucker—the more you are in denial about how the writing life works and how books are made. Writing anything, and getting it to be good, is a very iterative process. It—we build on things. We write a shitty first draft, and then we do a revision that makes it a little less shitty. Then we get some feedback and we go, “aha.” And we make it a little less shitty again, right?
Rhonda: And we just iterate our way to good. We just, do one thing. Today we're making the dialogue better. Tomorrow, we're deepening the sensory description in our setting, just one thing at a time. So give up the idea that you need to write something perfect every time you sit down. It is not possible. And you are just setting yourself up for additional creative anxiety that you don't need. And it will get in the way. Anytime you feel your creative anxiety rising because of perfectionist thoughts, or thoughts like, “no one will ever publish this, or it'll get published and everybody will say how shallow it is,” or whatever your thing is—stop, set a timer for three minutes. Go back and do that centering exercise to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, and write again. This is what we do. We're resilient writers, right?
Rhonda: Faced with a problem, we figure out the solution, and we go back to it time and time again. I am not saying that I am perfect with my focus. I lose it every now and again. I find myself, my ability to focus, going from three hours, to two hours, to one hour, to 15 minutes, just like everyone else. And then I have to stop and say, “okay, Rhonda, you are committed to being fierce with your focus. What are the problems we need to solve here? Is it the social media that has crept back onto the phone? Is it, um, your, you've stopped doing your centering exercises? Is it, uh, that you are not writing often enough, And so you're beginning to fear the desk? What is it?” And we problem solve for it, right? Because that's the kind of people we are. All right, everyone, those are my tips for focusing, how to write without distractions.
Rhonda: It is not the case that you will use one of these tips and it will change everything for you. I mean, the triggering the parasympathetic nervous system with a centering exercise, that'll blow your mind. The Pomodoro technique, blow your mind, but they won't work if you still haven't done everything else to be fierce with your focus. All of these things work together, and we need them all because we're fighting the world on this. The world is unfocused. The world is scattered, the world is distractable. And so we need to be better with our focus. We need to be fierce with our focus. And, so, yeah, we have to do things that other people wouldn't do. Yes, sir <laugh>, we're doing it. All right, everyone, I hope that that was helpful for you and, um, that it is the kind of thing that you'll find useful. So from time to time, I'm gonna do some of these solo episodes and just talk to you about a particular issue. Maybe bring forward some tips or techniques that you can use in your writing life as well. And then we'll go back to, um, interviews. So, really looking forward to hearing from you about this episode. Um, if you have a chance to give me a rating and review for the podcast, I would really appreciate that, and I will see you next time. Take care. Bye.
Outro: Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm gods that “yes, this is a great show. Definitely recommend it to other writers.” And that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it, and I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.