177 – Get Focused! Part 1

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Get Focused Part 1 Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young - We'll help you find the focus you need in your writing and life!Do you struggle to focus on your writing? You’re not alone. But you can regain the focus you need in your writing and your life. Come learn how!

But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

With the busyness our culture and our lives bring us each day, we have a multitude of things vying for our attention. And it’s not just for any given moment but also for any given season in our lives. Urgent demands and expectations badger us relentlessly. This can create a problem that we might not even be aware of as it’s happening: we lose focus. We get sidetracked from what we actually wanted to be doing. And it happens on both a large, life-level scale and a small, moment-by-moment scale.

What should get our time and attention, and what shouldn’t? That’s the question we want to help you answer, so we’re going to talk about focus. What it is, how we achieve it, and how we can maintain it. It’s a big topic so we’ll cover it in a series of episodes.

What is focus?

Let’s start by defining focus. Merriam-Webster tells us focus is:

1a : a center of activity, attraction, or attention

b: a point of concentration

2: directed attention.

In an article on James Clear’s website he writes, Experts define focus as the act of concentrating your interest or activity on something.” What I love about this definition is the idea of concentrating, Merriam-Webster mentioned that as well.

But how do we do that? James Clear goes on to say, In order to concentrate on one thing you must, by default, ignore many other things…Focus can only occur when we have said yes to one option and no to all other optionsin the present moment focus requires that you only do one thing.”

So tuning other things out is crucial to focusing. This is true both on a large scale and on a small scale. We’re going to cover both those scales, but for this episode we’ll concentrate on large scale focus.

Large Scale Focus

On a large scale, you might have trouble focusing on your writing career or on the book you’re currently trying to write if you have a day job that demands you to put in lots of overtime. Maybe you also have children or grandchildren at home who keep wanting stuff from you—like dinner, or a diaper change, or help with homework, or a ride to soccer practice, or a listening ear when things go wrong at school. That’s a lot to deal with.

Or maybe you’ve always wanted to go back to school yourself to finish a degree or get a postgraduate degree. Or maybe you really love being a Bible study leader at church, and they’ve asked you to teach more classes.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things by themselves, but if you try to do them all in this season of your life, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. There are too many large scale objectives competing for your time, attention, and energy. You end up burned out and stressed, and more often than not, feeling like a failure. And it’s not because you’re a terrible person, it’s because you’ve given yourself an impossible mission. 

You’ve got to make some choices if you want to be able to focus on writing. Because the key is focus. Focus—concentration, directed attention—is necessary in order to work to the best of your ability. You can work poorly without focus, but you can’t work at your best level.

Please don’t hear us saying that you can’t be a good mom and a good writer. Or that you can’t have a demanding day job and still be a writer, or whatever. What we’re saying is that you’re limited in time and energy.

How many large scale things can you manage? Which things will that be?

Step one in achieving focus on a large scale is deciding how many large scale things you can reasonably manage, and which ones those will be. When it comes to writing, you have to decide whether writing that book or having some sort of writing career is in fact a goal right now. Whether it’s something you want to commit time and energy to, because that’s most likely going to come at the expense of something else. To say yes to one thing means you have to say no to other things.

Make a list of the things you’re already committed to, or that you want to commit to. It might help your list to be more thorough if you go through the various roles you play in your life. For example, maybe you’re a school teacher, a mom, a homeowner, a leader on your neighborhood association board, and a wife. 

  • How do you feel about those roles? 
  • Which are most important to you? 
  • What are the commitments involved in each role and how much time and energy do they take?

You’ve really got to dig into those questions. To help do that, you need to consider your values.

What are your values?

Your values are just what it sounds like: the things you value. The things you believe are important in life in the way you work, in the way you live, and even in the way you play. Some examples of values are: generosity, compassion, creativity, courage, discipline, justice, joy, teamwork, connection, vision.

Why is knowing your values important?  What you do with your time, and how you do it, needs to align with what you value. If they align, then you will experience satisfaction. If they conflict, you set yourself up for frustration and discontent. 

As Christians, it’s important that our values also align with what the Bible teaches. The Bible is, in essence, God’s “User Manual” for our lives. When we put it at the center of our focus, we can move forward with confidence. If we try to go against it? You guessed it.  We’re setting ourselves up for frustration and discontent.

We found some great resources about values on the internet. One is a worksheet that gives a short list of values and has some great questions to ponder to help you make decisions based on your values. 

Another resource has a more exhaustive list of values that you can look at. It’s nice to have a list of values to help stimulate your thinking. 

Identifying Your Values From Your Experiences

Another way that might help you define your values is to consider three different types of experiences in your life. It’s best to consider examples from both your personal life and your career life. This method comes from another article on the internet.

1) Think about the times you were happiest in your life. 

  • What were you doing?
  • Who were you with, if anyone?
  • Why were you happy? What factors influenced your happiness?

2) Think about the times you felt most proud.

We’re not talking about arrogance here, but rather pleasure in accomplishment, of doing your best, of doing the type of good works well done that God planned for us. 

  • Why did you feel proud?
  • What people shared your pride, if anyone?
  • Were there other factors that influenced your feelings of pride? What were they?

3) Think about times you felt most fulfilled or satisfied.

  • Identify what need or desire was fulfilled. Be specific.
  • Did this experience help give your life meaning? How? Why?
  • Were there other factors that contributed to your feelings of satisfaction? What were they?

The goal, remember, is to identify the things that are truly important to you. The things you value. Think about all those experiences you’ve had and identify the values they represent. You can use one of those lists of values that we linked to to help you. Remember that typically when you’re feeling a deep joy, fulfillment, and a feeling of godly accomplishment, you’re probably doing something that aligns closely with your values.

Values in conflict

For those of you who write fiction, thinking about values may be something you already do with your characters. You ask them what they value, or what they think is important in life and why. Do they value security, for example? And if so, how is that shown by what they do? Maybe your character chooses a career path that provides a high, steady income. Or maybe your character values freedom, so she buys an RV and travels the world working random odd jobs.

In fiction it’s always more interesting if your characters have values that bring conflict. What if your character values freedom but also values love? Now she has to decide between going on the road in her RV or becoming a wife to the man she’s fallen in love with, who must remain in the same town to care for his aging parents. She wants two roles: traveler and wife. Those roles highlight two different values: love and freedom. She can’t have them both. She has to make a difficult choice.

As fiction goes, real life can go, too. Conflict. Choices.

As you think about your values, you’ll find that, like our imaginary character, you have to rank which values are most important to you. It helps to ask yourself, “If I could satisfy only one of these values, which would I choose?”

That’s awful and doesn’t feel fair, but remember that achieving focus on a large scale means deciding not just how many large scale commitments you can reasonably manage, but which ones those will be. Most of us can’t do everything we want to in this life.

Do your commitments reflect your values?

Understanding your values is important because it’s easy to get sucked into commitments that aren’t our passion and don’t reflect what we value most. For example, what if you’re putting in a lot of extra hours at work because that’s the culture there, but those extra hours put you in line for a promotion to a job that is less creative than your current job. You might just drift into that promotion without stopping to think about why you’re working all that overtime and whether you actually want that promotion. 

What if, when you stop to think about your values, you realize you’re working those hours and following your work culture because community is something you value. There’s nothing wrong with that. Unless it turns out that creativity is something you value more than community. Now you have insight into why you’ve been working long hours, and you can make an informed choice about whether you really want to keep doing that. 

Or, what if you’ve been feeling frustrated and dissatisfied with your life because you haven’t been making any progress on the manuscript you’ve been working on? You’ve been too tired after working those long hours. Once you realize you value creativity, it’s even easier to understand your frustration. You may have thought you were frustrated by your lack of energy, when really the underlying problem is a lack of focus on what you value most.

This was a simple example, and we’re not saying that all writers do or should value creativity most highly. These are complicated issues, and they’re hard decisions. James Clear, in his article, says, “Most people don’t have trouble with focusing. They have trouble with deciding.”

Decisions Matter

The decisions you make about what you value and what you commit to matter a great deal. Those decisions become permission. Making a decision means you’ve given yourself permission to take the time to write, for example. You’ve given yourself permission to say no to everything else during that writing time and do just that one thing. Or to say no to that request to be on your neighborhood’s Welcome Wagon committee, or whatever is of lesser value to you. That’s how you foster focus on a large scale in your life.

We encourage you to make decisions like this prayerfully. And look at the way God has made you. You probably won’t get neon signs or a pristine career plan all laid out for you, but you will sense God’s direction if you’re seeking him. He’s not trying to make you guess. We’ve done two previous podcast episodes (episodes 110 and 111) specifically on hearing God if you’re looking for more help with that.

Keep in mind, too, that God has given us all the gift of creativity in some way, shape, or form because we’re made in his image. Writing is a great way for us to live in to the act of creating with God. Even if you haven’t heard a directive from God that “thou shalt write,” there isn’t anything wrong with making the decision to have writing be part of your life unless God is telling you not to, which he might in fact do. 

For more about the question of: “Did God really ask you to write,” we have a special audio recording on our Patreon page called “Did God Really Ask You to Write.” Bear in mind that you have to be a patron for at least one month to get access to that. 

Don’t be afraid to stop writing, or cut back, if that’s what you need to do. We’ve interviewed several writers who’ve felt God leading them in exactly that direction (episodes 152, 153, 171, 172). We encourage you to listen to those interviews for more discussion about that.

Reevaluating Decisions Matters

It’s also crucial to periodically reevaluate our decisions. That’s another way we maintain focus on the things that are important to us. We have to make sure those things are still important. Set aside time, maybe quarterly or semi-annually or whatever, to check in with yourself and see if what you’re doing still makes sense. If your passion is still there. If your values are the same—because those can and do change over time. Life is fluid. 

In your evaluation, ask yourself if you were realistic about the time and energy involved in the commitments you made. Check in with your family, your boss, or whoever is important to you as well. They may have differing opinions about how well you kept up with your responsibilities. Ask yourself if you can take on something new. Or should you expand one of your roles? Or does something have to be cut back or dropped altogether?

The Results

So, the most basic and simple way we develop focus on the largest scale, a “life-size scale,” is to make decisions based on our values about what will and won’t be part of our life. What we will and won’t focus on. Knowing our values, knowing Scripture, praying through our decisions, submitting them to God, all this helps us know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and helps us be sure we’re focusing on what matters most. Then, we maintain our focus by sticking to those decisions. 

In the next episode of our series on focus, we’ll talk about developing focus within your writing career. Between now and then, we encourage you to spend time working through these issues. Know your values, understand your decisions so that your life can have the focus you want it to have!

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We want to hear from you!

What do you think is the biggest challenge to finding focus?

THANK YOU!

Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

A big thank you to our November sponsor of the month, Tammy Partlow! She’s a speaker at women’s retreats, and her debut novel Blood Beneath the Pines, a suspense set in the deep South, is now available. She’s hard at work on the second book of the series!

Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast P.S. for their fabulous sound editing!

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