Concentration: 22 ways to stay focused on writing

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To be a great writer, you have to be able to concentrate. Not only that but you have to be able to maintain focus for sustained periods. It’s not the only thing you’ll need but it’s a good start.

Psychologists describe a powerful form of concentration called ‘flow’. It happens when someone concentrates  fully engaged on what they are doing. (See the Wikipedia definition.) When you are writing in like this, you can hold all the pieces of a story in your head and write fluently.

We all recognise this state. “Time flies when you’re having fun” is one version. Meditation is, perhaps, another version. If you play sports or video games and you find yourself ‘at one’ with what you’re doing, that’s another. All these mental states require concentration.

Conversely, failure to concentrate can be very unproductive. In fact, multitasking makes us stupid. People who think they are good at multitasking aren’t, according to researchers at Stanford University (see also: original paper). That’s you and me, dear reader.

I’m writing this post to share some of the habits and techniques that have (sometimes) helped me to improve my own concentration. And yes, I know that some of them a contradictory. That’s the ‘sometimes’. Anyway, I hope you find them useful. If you have any tips you would like to share, please leave a comment.

  • Accept your distractions. You will get distracted. Your mind will wander. You won’t want to get started. Accept it. The trick is to stand back and notice your brain doing these things. When it happens, stand back from yourself. Notice the distraction. Name the monster. Gently remind yourself that you’re trying to concentrate and it will be easier to return your focus to your work.
  • Use a concentration timer. I like using meditation timers when I write. A little bell every five minutes helps remind to put my focus back onto my writing if my mind has wandered. There is a free, online timer on my company website. You can use it time and pace a writing session.
  • Go somewhere else. Do you write a bit more neatly when you get a new pen? Change can be beneficial, even if the effect is temporary. Sometimes a change of location (go to the park, Starbucks, the Kitchen – anywhere but here) or a change of method (use a quill, a pencil, a typewriter, a different word processor, Linux) can help.
  • Stay where you are. I’m always getting up and going somewhere to get something or do something. To counter this tendency, I keep scrap paper (recycled A4 printer paper cut in half) by my desk and scribble reminders. Then back to the writing.
  • Write at a different time. I write best if I get up early. (See How I trained myself to get up earlier in the morning.) Just changing your routine can be helpful.
  • Write to a schedule. When I have a busy week with many deadlines, I block out time for my work in Microsoft Outlook. This helps me allocate time and measure progress on longer-term projects and ensure that I have enough time to do all the work I planned. Other people find it helpful to start writing at the same time every day.
  • Morning pages. I have to admit that I haven’t tried Julia Cameron’s technique for unblocking your creativity but other people, including my wife, swear by it. It involves writing in a stream of consciousness first thing every day.
  • Switch off distractions. Turn off your radio, TV, shut the door, close your email program, put your phone on mute, shut down your blog reader software, use a distraction-free word  processor. Anything you can do to stop distractions before they happen, the better.
  • Tame your muse. Your muse works for you, not the other way round. Think of it as a recalcitrant employee. Give it deadlines, tell it to show up for work at a fixed time every day, give it feedback and praise, define what you expect from it.
  • Seek inspiration. Lots of people praise walking or running as a source of inspiration. The best advice I ever had was from my history tutor at Oxford – keep a notebook with you at all times because you never know when you will have a good idea.
  • Quantify. Use word count to set goals – 500 words and then a break, for example. Track writing output over time in a spreadsheet. Use Joe’s Goals to keep track of habits in the long term. Some people, like me, are highly motivated by a sense of progress.
  • Silence. External noise can break your concentration. Try noise cancelling headphones (I use Bose), music (see Music for working), silent PC (See: Tools for writing: Silent PCs) or ear plugs (See In praise of earplugs).
  • Meditate to develop concentration and calmness. I find it helpful to meditate a little before I start work. It’s not easy for me but when I do it, I find it really helps. I sit in a quiet room, legs crossed and count my breaths. This guide may be a helpful place to start.
  • Treats. I like tea (See Tools for writing: A nice cup of tea). Other people prefer cigarettes, Jaffa cakes or whatever. I would just be wary of too many sugary treats because they can cause a sugar crash later. You end up borrowing energy from yourself.
  • Punishment. Try Write or Die. If you don’t keep writing, it starts deleting what you have already written!
  • Shame. Instead of running a 26 mile marathon, aim to write 26,000 words and get your friends to sponsor you for charity. If you fail to do it, you won’t raise any money and you’ll feel bad. Nothing like social pressure to keep you at the keyboard.
  • Buddy writing. Working with a friend, even over an open Skype line, can encourage concentration, providing you both have the same work habits. Somehow the peer pressure keeps you both working hard. It’s also an antidote to the potential loneliness of the long-distance writer.
  • Chunking. Write for 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break. Repeat.
  • Don’t worry. Editing is not writing. Don’t let your mental self-editor get in the way of your super-productive copywriter. Accept that your first draft might not be perfect. Leave notes to yourself in your text – fact-check, tidy up, rewrite, condense. The important thing is to keep writing.
  • Use TK. This is a special case of ‘Don’t worry.’ If there’s something you don’t know, don’t stop to look it up. Just put TK in the text. It means ‘to come [later]’. For example, ‘When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in TK DATE, he didn’t expect to meet little green men.’ Fill in the blanks later. TK is easy to search for because it doesn’t occur often in everyday writing. (There are a few exceptions, such as the band Outkast.)
  • Rock and river. Water is soft and rocks are hard but a river can defeat a rock with patience and constant effort over time. I think it’s the same with writing. A little every day beats a lot once a year. If you keep this in mind, concentrating for a short period every day becomes easier.
  • Leave a hook to get you started. When you finish writing each day, try to leave a few notes in your text to help you get started the next day. This will make it easier to overcome inertia and re-engage with the work.

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45 Responses to Concentration: 22 ways to stay focused on writing

  1. Caroline Pigott September 7, 2009 at 5:10 pm #

    Very helpful tips thank you! I’m definitely going to look into Julia Cameron’s tips:)

    • Matthew Stibbe September 8, 2009 at 8:37 am #

      Cameron’s book is called The Artist’s Way. My wife swears by it. She’s a theatre director so it works across the arts and not just for writing. Personally, I found the style a bit cloying and sentimental but her ideas are very effective: morning pages, artist dates and so on. Well worth reading.

  2. Fencing Bear September 7, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    These are really good tips–thanks!

    • Matthew Stibbe September 8, 2009 at 8:36 am #

      Thanks for the comment – it’s great to see you stop by again! :)

  3. Aprill Allen September 7, 2009 at 10:57 pm #

    I LOVE the TK tip. Thanks!

    • Matthew Stibbe September 8, 2009 at 8:35 am #

      It’s great isn’t it? Of all the things I’ve learned in the last ten years as a writer, TK is the most useful. Well, that and how to use the word count tool. :)

  4. Patricia Skinner September 8, 2009 at 8:06 am #

    Great list and some very useful tips here. I’m a great believer in just getting the words down first and beautifying it later: but I often find that what I write initially is not nearly as bad as my inner perfectionist is telling me: the inner perfectionist in us all is responsible for a lot of things that don’t get done because we think our ideas are ‘not good enough.’

    • Matthew Stibbe September 8, 2009 at 8:34 am #

      I think every writer has an inner perfectionist. It’s really annoying when it stops you writing anything, isn’t it? Sometimes you just need to sit in front of the screen and write stuff. Editing is a time for your perfectionist to shine but that’s later. Perhaps morning pages might be a good way to overcome this particular obstacle?

  5. Alex Wilks January 13, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    Thanks. But the list is much too long. and doesn’t appear to be ordered or prioritised.

    Maybe some tips for editing should appear next. And a short mnemnonic.

    Alex
    PS my main tip is not to look at your e-mails for the first two hours of any writing session. Then have a quick peak at mails as a reward if you’ve written what you need to.

    • Matthew Stibbe January 13, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

      A menmonic might be useful. I like long lists though – more chance that you’ll find something you didn’t already know! :)

      Thanks for the suggestion about not looking at emails. It’s very true, isn’t!

  6. Home Security Man April 7, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    Nice list and ideas! I find that some background music (non vocal preferably) helps me to drown out the other stuff and concentrate too.

  7. copywriter July 15, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    Hi all,

    This is really great post. I am hoping to follow all the thangs mentioned above.

    Thanks mate…

  8. David Swales October 4, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

    Matthew, Thanks very much for taking the time to share these tips. Very generous of you!

    Kind Regards, David

    • Remote Monitoring June 3, 2012 at 9:18 am #

      Yep buddy David you are absolutely right that Matthew really make it simple and pointed real 22 points for writing. Writing really needs a focus and very very good care in the subject. Some writers do regular meditation to increase their inner strength.

  9. wolfwriter23 November 9, 2010 at 5:01 am #

    I am the most cynical person in the world when it comes to productivity articles and I’ve gotta say, this blew me out of the water — thank you SO much for this insight. I can safely say it succeeded since I have about eight new tabs open with all of the links you provided in this. thanks.

  10. Eric Swett February 24, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Wow. I wish I had found this article last week. I’m definitely going to try and implement many of your suggestions.

    • Matthew Stibbe February 24, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

      That’s the first rule of productivity: Invent a time machine! :)

  11. Daniel Sykes April 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks, this is a great article

  12. Rupert Wolfe Murray October 31, 2011 at 6:14 am #

    Superb advice. My problem is email and other online distractions; when I turn them off I can write. The other great motivator for me is deadlines, when you HAVE to write something it all comes together. But imposing deadlines on yourself doesn’t work (for me)

    • Matthew Stibbe October 31, 2011 at 7:52 am #

      Self-imposed deadlines are the worst. It’s easy to let yourself off and do something else. Sometimes I feel like a doctor who smokes about this. I work like crazy to meet client deadlines but my own personal stuff drags. Incentives, scheduling and thinking about the consequences of NOT doing something can help. Cookies and tea too. But if you find the answer to this problem, let me know!

  13. Harold Smith March 15, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    One way to stay focus is to avoid distractions. Have you hear about “airplane mode” this mode needs you to turn off all gadgets like mobile that can help you lose your focus. Another good way to stay focus is to creat a to-do list and track time spend on ech task. This way you will effectively know what are the tasks you need to do, limit wasted time and helps you improve work flow. It can also help you maximize the use of time and get more things done.

  14. Rose May 11, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Fantastic tips! Somehow I can focus well for clients but not on my own personal blog, so this could well be the answer to my prayers.

    I’m looking forward to using several of the tips you recommended (and I am going to try Write or Die cautiously…. how terrifying yet exciting!)

  15. mike onyeit June 2, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    mathew stibe, may god bless the work of your hands . i have never met with such generosity

  16. mike onyeit June 2, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    thanks

  17. Anthony June 3, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    While I write I keep my eye on the time. I am a professional writer I write articles for my regular customers who posted those in their blogs regularly. Some times I have to write more than 4-5 articles for them they track my time using this remote monitoring software named vuept, I lost my concentration some times. I hope yours 22 tips is gonna save my life.

  18. colette June 27, 2014 at 12:56 am #

    Suburb advice. Thank you very much!

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