Better, Faster Writing Begins With This One Skill
You’ve probably heard our 8-second attention span is a full second shorter than that of a goldfish … that’s less time than it takes most people to finish reading this sentence.
But you may not know this hasn’t always been the case. In 2002, the human attention span was 12 seconds. While it still sounds short, that’s a full 50% longer than it is now!
And this increasing inability to concentrate has consequences, to the point that it can be downright harmful. Research has shown that when your focus is broken, it takes around 25 minutes to return to the task you were working on. This is a huge waste of your most precious resource: time.
But there are more downsides to having your concentration broken. Having to restart a task depletes your brain’s resources. This creates a downward spiral in which distractions cause you to become more and more mentally exhausted, and focusing becomes increasingly difficult. When this happens, your task will take longer than it should, and the quality of the work will suffer.
Now, ready for the good news?
You can train your brain to focus –
creating less stress for yourself and leading you to produce better work in less time. Here’s how to do it:
1) Remove the distractions you can control.
Everyone has certain things they find distracting. When you become aware of what your own triggers are, set yourself up for success by removing them. If it’s a ringing phone, put yours in silent mode while you’re working. Maybe you find yourself wanting to check certain websites throughout the day. If they’re not related to your writing project, you might want to use a website blocker to remove the temptation.
If the idea of removing these distractions makes you uncomfortable, just remember this. You probably take breaks throughout the day (or at least, you should … more on that later), and you can attend to your distractions at those times. Plus, by training yourself to focus, you’ll finish working earlier — which will give you more time to take care of these things later.
2) Work on staying positive.
Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but trying to control your mental state is a worthy endeavor. Negative emotions can be all-consuming and cripple your ability to concentrate on your work. Psychologists recommend a 3:1 ratio of positive emotions to negative ones for optimal performance on tasks. Exercise, adequate rest, and meditation (which itself helps train you to focus) can all keep negative feelings at bay. If something is about to make your temper flare, take a moment to breathe slowly and deeply before deciding if it’s really worth your attention.
3) Start in small increments.
Improving your focus is like training your brain. It’s a kind of exercise. As with any new exercise program, you should start small. Begin by giving your work your undivided attention for 5 minutes. Then slowly build up to longer chunks. If it feels daunting at first, be cognizant that not every task you do requires laser-like focus, and some of your writing projects will be easier than others. Choose to train yourself by concentrating on the things that really require it.
4) Tackle your tougher tasks first.
Do you like to ease into your workday? I know I sometimes do. There are days when I check my email and I look at the latest job postings on AWAI’s websites before I do anything else. Only after this do I feel “ready” to begin doing real work.
But being ready is overrated. The real solution is just to dive into the task that requires the most focus. Remember, your ability to concentrate diminishes over time. So why bother fighting the inevitable? Because your focus will go downhill throughout the course of your day, you should start with the toughest tasks first … moving along through the day to items that require less attention … finishing with those mindless things you can practically do automatically.
5) Prioritize your activities.
Here’s another way to organize your time. Prioritize your day in order of task importance, with the most important thing first, the second most important thing second, and so forth. Work on each item in order, one thing at a time, not moving on until the task is complete. Does this seem tedious? Hopefully not — it’s actually the ideal way for your brain to work! Plan to give yourself a (reasonable) reward when you’re finished. If you catch your mind wandering, bring your attention back to your task by envisioning yourself enjoying the reward.
6) Take breaks.
Some people swear by the Pomodoro method (25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break). Others prefer to work for longer and push themselves until some arbitrary point. Whatever your method, be sure you take time away from the tasks that require your concentration. Schedule breaks into your day if you have trouble committing to them. And know that a break might mean stopping work altogether, or it might mean switching back and forth between tasks that requires a lot of attention and tasks that don’t.
Why are breaks so important? Because your brain needs to rest in order to restore itself to peak performance. But at the same time your conscious mind is resting, your subconscious continues to work. This is why many people’s best ideas come in the car, in the shower, or anywhere other than their desk. By turning their focus away from the problem demanding it, they give their minds enough “space” to come up with the solution they’ve been seeking.
7) Get absorbed in a good story.
This suggestion is my favorite — after all, it has to do with writing! You’ve probably heard by now that our brains are wired to enjoy stories. Use this fact to your advantage by reading one that’s engaging but requires your active attention in order to follow along. You’ll be training your brain to focus for longer periods, but because you’re enjoying the story, it won’t feel like a major effort. Plus, reading good stories will improve your writing along with your concentration. It’s a win-win!
With these various ways to help yourself focus better and for longer periods, there’s no reason to be a slave to your monkey mind. Make a point to proactively improve your concentration, and you’ll turn out great writing, faster.
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