Many writers are sabotaging their ability to focus without even knowing it. They continue in one certain habit—a habit that almost everyone has—that derails and obstructs their ability to focus. What habit is that? Allowing distractions to steal your focus and direct it away from where you want it! What can we do to steel ourselves against the habit of being distracted? Join us to find out!
But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!
Some of us, and we’re including ourselves here, have every intention of being focused in our thoughts and activities, but our brains don’t always cooperate. Our minds skitter from thing to thing to thing to thing. Erin and Karen have had more than one meeting where one of us is talking and the other is like, “Oh look! A butterfly!”
That’s not a picture of great focus. We recognize the challenges. We live them.
It’s not just us. We as a society seem to be getting more and more distractible—the internet and phone apps daily encourage it with their constant flashing of ads and notifications. We have trouble keeping our attention on what we truly want to focus on.
That becomes a question of attention span. There was an article in Newsweek about this. The article defined attention span as “the amount of time we can stay focused on something.”
It goes on to make the case that technology is making us accustomed to distraction, to the point where distraction becomes a habit. Because it’s a habit that is continually reinforced, it becomes a very strong habit.
Then, once we’ve developed a habit of distraction, our attention span decreases, and that leads to impatience. A short attention span combined with impatience leads us to feeling like anything that requires time and thought is unpleasant. So we tend to want to do quick easy tasks rather than dive into those bigger tasks which we think will be more difficult, because we assume they’ll be unpleasant.
But that’s not necessarily reality. That’s our “habit” speaking. Many times completing a difficult task creates the opposite feeling. It might be a hard task, but we feel a great sense of accomplishment when we finish, and that feels great, not unpleasant.
But habits are strong, so it’s no wonder we’re struggling with having short attention spans. And we’ll likely continue to struggle. The Newsweek article goes on to say, “Society now supports this downward spiral. Expectations of constant availability and the pressure to participate in social media and a variety of other communication channels keep us tethered to our devices.”
What can we do to change things? We’ve done some research and found some ideas to help increase our attention span and encourage moment-by-moment focus.
Recognize the bAD habit
The first thing the Newsweek article suggests is to “recognize that distraction is a bad habit.” In other words, it’s not a good thing. It’s something we should work to change.
The next thing we can do is to stop multitasking. We talked about this at length in the last episode on focus, so you can check that out for more of the research. But the bottom line is that our brains are not designed to multitask. They’re designed to do one cognitive task at a time. What we’re really doing when we think we’re multitasking is switching back and forth between cognitive tasks and that is scientifically proven to be inefficient and slower.
Another idea to help increase our attention spa, is to practice mindfulness. An article on the George Washington University website defined mindfulness as “basic, intentional focus on the present moment.”
The article goes on to say, “[Mindfulness] can be a powerful tool in training your mind to settle on the immediate tasks at hand.”
You can practice mindfulness by doing something like taking a walk while keeping your phone and other technology distractions out of sight and sound, and focus on your senses. Use your powers of observation and pay attention to what you can see, hear, touch, smell. Focus on only that.
Another way to practice mindfulness might be to pay attention to only whatever small task you’re doing at that moment. For example, maybe you’re making your bed. Don’t let your mind skitter around or think about the next task. Focus only on those blankets you’re putting in order. Tucking the sheet in or whatever. Practice being in the now. You can use little chores—doing the dishes, folding laundry, whatever—as an opportunity to practice and hone your ability to focus.
Another idea the Newsweek article mentions to help increase attention span is to practice active listening.
This is surely something we all need anyway, whether we think we have focus issues or not. When you’re having a conversation with someone, stop whatever else you’re doing, or whatever you’re tempted to do, and focus solely on listening. Put down your phone, close your laptop, turn off the TV or your music or whatever. Focus on what other people are saying, on where they’re coming from, rather than on what you want to say next or on what that ding on your phone just meant.
Be curious about other people and their point of view. Listen to learn. Don’t interrupt. This is much harder than it sounds.
Another idea related to listening is to choose one thing to listen to, maybe a selection of music or a podcast. Listen without your tv on, without scrolling on your phone or tablet. The idea is to ONLY listen. A lot of us like to do other tasks while we listen to a podcast or something. We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with that. We’re only saying that you can also use that podcast or musical selection as a chance to increase your attention span.
Another practice that can increase attention span is meditation. The Newsweek article quoted Dr Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. She said that meditation “taps right into the skill needed to increase attention span.”
She goes on to say that the reason why meditation can help is that it “requires you to quiet your mind and focus on what is happening in the moment.”
Basically you’re training your focus. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center say that “meditation can change the structure and function of the brain through relaxation, which can improve memory and attention span, in addition to offering other health benefits.”
Even people new to the practice of meditation can see a benefit, so you don’t have to be some seasoned veteran at it or anything.
There are many different ways to practice mediation. A few are:
We talked about mindfulness meditation earlier when we suggested taking a walk and paying attention to your sensory input. But mindfulness meditation can also be just sitting and focusing on breathing, or focusing on your thoughts, paying attention to them as they go through your mind.
Scripture meditation is a concentrative type of meditation. There are lots of ways to meditate on Scripture, but one way is that you might read a verse through a few times to get the flow, and then slow down and focus on it word by word, contemplating the meaning of each word and the implications of each word, then taking time to listen to what God may be saying to you through all that.
Movement meditation is another type of meditation. It might be through something like walking or gardening or practicing yoga. It typically involves doing slow repetitive movements, focusing on your body, your breathing, and staying connected to the present moment to help you relax your mind and body.
Another activity that can improve your attention span is getting some exercise! The University of New Hampshire mentioned a study on their website that linked participating in a physical activity with longer attention spans.
Another way to help foster focus is to use the pomodoro technique throughout your workday. This article gives a full description of this, but basically in the pomodoro technique, you alternate between sprints of focused work and short breaks.
For example, you set your timer for twenty minutes, then you work solidly for that time, then you get a five minute break. Or you could start with a fifteen minute work session, or thirty minutes, or whatever works for you. The goal is to encourage yourself to focus by knowing you have that break coming as a reward. The breaks serve as both reward and rest after the fatigue of focusing.
One of the nice things about the pomodoro technique is that it helps you break the habit of multitasking. Which again, increases attention span.
Another way to grow your attention span is to be sure you’re getting the sleep you need. Lack of sleep can hinder your ability to focus. Erin suffers from chronic insomnia and can testify that this is true! But even if you do get enough sleep at night, you still want to be sure you also take breaks throughout your day and your week. You need rest. You can’t focus 24/7 so don’t try. You need off time. Rest is actually necessary for productivity.
Fasting from technology
We also encourage you to consider an occasional fast from screens: phones, computers, TV, whatever. You could try doing this one day a week, or maybe it’s an hour every day, or whatever. It’s an opportunity to unplug from the constant noise and distraction. To let your brain have a break from incessant flashing and pinging and the decision-making that every notification forces you to make. Take a break from constant input.
Monitor mind wandering
Another way you can foster better moment by moment focus is to Monitor Your Mind Wandering.
An article on entrepreneur.com said:
“We spend nearly fifty percent of our waking time thinking about something other than what we’re supposed to be doing, according to one Harvard study. We are on autopilot, and our mind is wandering, in part to avoid the effort of focusing on something. The key to heightened productivity is to notice when your mind is distracted and bring your attention back on task.”
The article goes on to say:
“This means paying attention to your thoughts and recognizing when your mind starts drifting. This allows you to manage what you focus on and redirect your thoughts when you slip up. Instead of allowing yourself to keep meandering over to social media to check out your newsfeed, you actively put the brakes on this distraction.”
This is an area we all can be praying about: that God would help us pay attention to our mind wandering. Not all mind wandering is bad—in fact, sometimes it’s necessary and good. It helps with creativity, for one thing. As writers, we need that.
However, mind wandering can cross the line to being problematic if it derails our ability to focus. It can also become sinful if our mind wandering becomes fantasizing. Protecting our minds is something God cares deeply about, and we can trust him to answer earnest prayer and help us.
Create a Distraction Free Environment
The next idea to help encourage focus is to create a distraction free environment in your workspace. How do you do that?
- Avoid clutter. A Psychology Today article says clutter can distract us, bombard our mind with too much stimuli, inhibit our creativity, cause anxiety, cause guilt, and make it difficult to relax.
- Make sure whatever you need to do your work is readily available—research materials, notes, supplies, or whatever. Then make sure what you don’t need is put away.
- Don’t have your workspace in your tv room if that will distract you. If there isn’t a good distraction free space in your home, consider going elsewhere for your writing time, such as a coffee shop or whatever.
- Create a distraction free computer screen (if you work on a computer). Don’t let your email or social media apps ding at you. Take advantage of full screen apps that immerse you in just that app and nothing else.
- Eliminate interruptions other from people. Close your door, work when the kids are sleeping or not home. Use noise canceling headphones.
Create a Ritual
Another idea to encourage better focus is to create a ritual that helps your mind settle, a ritual that signals your brain that it’s time to focus. Creating a routine will help set your body and mind’s expectation of what comes next. It’s like creating a habit. Your ritual might be just one minute or it might be much longer. It needs to be tailored to what works for you.
As you’re thinking about creating a ritual, some things to consider including are: prayer, deep breathing, meditating on a Scripture verse, sitting in a favorite chair, Bible reading, doing a short set of exercises, drinking a cup of coffee, playing a worship song or some other specific type of music, taking a walk. Experiment to find what works best for you. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. Repetition and consistency is the key. Do the same ritual every time.
Seek professional help
One last thing we want to mention. There are situations where a short attention span can be caused by physical and psychological conditions. For example, the article in Newsweek listed: ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, depression, learning disabilities, and head injuries as a few of the things that can affect our ability to focus.
Medication, therapy, and other treatments may be appropriate for people who deal with those types of conditions. If that might be you, it’s definitely worth having a conversation with your doctor about.
The habit that controls our day
Giving in to the habit of distraction ruins our ability to focus. In Scripture, God tells us to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Start there. Start with a habit of focusing on God. Start with prayer, even though it’s hard not to let our minds wander. But there’s no better way to establish a longer attention span and gain focus that will help us in every aspect of our lives.Many writers sabotage their ability to focus without even knowing it. We’ll show you how and why! You CAN achieve better moment-by-moment focus! #amwriting #christianwriter Click To Tweet
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
What distractions tempt you most and what helps you fight them?
Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!
A big thank you to our March 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!
Want the latest news from Karen and Erin? Click here to join our newsletter and get an exclusive audio download.