Remember back to the last time you were enjoying your work so much that an hour flew past in what felt like 15 minutes. And, in that time, you accomplished what may often take you several hours of writing?
You didn’t stop because you’d had enough, or because you were getting tired – no, you could have gone on much longer. You stopped because you had to – you had to give in to the hunger that had been gnawing at you, or the clock that was insisting you left your desk to run for a train, pick the kids up from school, or go into a meeting.
As writers, we all know that feeling – the high we get when we’re on a roll with our work – and the wrench when we’re dragged away from it. As I start to write this, now, I can feel myself slipping into that focused zone, and I don’t want to be interrupted.
Go with the flow
The feeling I’m experiencing is what Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to Work Less and Achieve More, calls the “Flow State”, and it’s the holy grail of hyperfocus, a term he uses to describe the brain’s most powerful mode.
As writers, we need to be able to hyperfocus. We do our best work when we block out all other distractions – in fact 90% of writing is, or should be, focused work, according to Bailey.
The problem is that we’re surrounded by distractions… Social media, emails, online shopping, browsing holiday websites, listening to the TV, radio, or podcasts – they’re all easy fuel for our procrastination.
Worse still, they can give us the sense that we are busy because they occupy so much of our headspace and our time. But, as Bailey points out, being busy is not the same as being productive.
Feeling busy because your brain is like a butterfly, hopping from one task to the next, is the enemy of productivity. You may sail through your household chores while your mind’s in multi-tasking mode, but you have to block out these distractions in order to luxuriate in the hyper-focused state.
Tame your wandering mind
Even if we think we have no difficulty switching off from distractions, Bailey provides some encouraging insight into behaviour that I for one recognise, and may, thanks to Bailey, no longer need to worry about.
It seems I’m not the only person in the world to frequently forget the unusual chore I’ve planned to slot into my usual routine, and I’m not alone in wandering into a room and wondering why I am there.
These memory slips happen when we’re acting on autopilot and our minds are already overloaded with competing thoughts – and they even happen to Bailey. His book’s peppered with interesting facts about focus, and why we can find it so challenging.
For example, most of us are working on – or thinking about – 10 different topics at once. If we switch between these tasks, each one takes 50% longer to complete than it would if we’d given it all our attention.
If we’ve managed to get focused, but we’re interrupted, it will take about 25 minutes to fully get back into what we were doing – and we’re most likely to be distracted by a second task before we do.
Bailey says that our minds wander 47% of the time. This means that for nearly half of our working day we aren’t able to fully focus on what we are doing.
This swathe of unfocused time isn’t entirely wasted. It’s useful for getting your life admin done – but, if it starts to eat into periods when you really need to concentrate, or, if life events have forced you off course and you’re struggling to get back into the flow, Bailey recommends scheduling dedicated hyperfocus time into your week.
Start with 15 minutes at a time. You can even break that up with an interval. Set a precise time to do it – ideally when you’re not going to be drained of energy or short of time. Remove your phone and other distractions, and build your focus by simply being aware of what’s going on in your head.
Use your hyperfocus times for projects that aren’t so difficult they’ll intimidate you. But not so easy that you’ll do them without thinking. The ideal writing job for building focus is one that’s challenging but stimulating.
The idea is to keep extending both the number of focus periods in your day, and the time that each one lasts. Bailey describes doing three 45 minute sessions of hyperfocus in a morning, across which he’ll easily write 2500 words.
Keep it simple
You’ll also find it easier to focus if you don’t try to do too much.
Bailey’s advice is to pare your daily to do list right down to just three things you want to accomplish. To whittle the list down to the top three tasks, divide it into four quadrants, noting whether each activity or event is: a) attractive, b) productive, c) unattractive, or d) unproductive.
The ones that are both a) attractive and b) productive are purposeful. They’ll give you a sense of achievement once accomplished. Those that are b) productive and c) unattractive are necessary.You should probably do them even though you would prefer not to. Anything else is either unnecessary (unattractive and unproductive), or a distraction (attractive but unproductive) and can be ditched.
Your purposeful achievements should not be so daunting that you’ll be tempted to procrastinate. You don’t have to write a chapter of a book, contact 10 editors, and come up with five new ideas.
No – according to Bailey, going to the gym and getting home from work at a reasonable time are both perfectly worthy events to add to your day’s purposeful to-dos as they will help to give you the mind space to become more focused.
Give them the status and time they deserve. For example, tell yourself that you are ‘scheduling time to go to the gym’, and then fix a time to do it, and put it in your diary.
The pay off is that activities like exercise that are good for releasing our cluttered minds will ultimately help us get into the flow state where we will do our best, most satisfying, work.
So we should also try to factor meditation into our day –it can apparently expand our working memory by 30% after just a few weeks of practice.
If meditation is a challenge you’re yet to learn to love, Bailey has more mundane recommendations. I seized on his advice to sit at a messy desk when you want to be creative, and a tidy one when you need to focus. (Great news as I find it comes naturally to me to write at a messy desk, but move to a clean one if I need to edit something complex).
I also take my first coffee of the day to my desk – something else I was pleased to see that Bailey recommends for boosting our mental
He even gives the thumbs up to a daily glass of wine. It’s apparently great for helping ideas to flow more freely, and way of “borrowing energy” from the next day.
What works for you when you need to focus?