You sit down – SQUIRREL! – to write. Yet you can’t – OOH, SHINY – seem to focus. You’ve got so many great ideas, but – PING! – you just got a text message.
If your brain jumps around when you sit down at the keyboard, are your writing dreams destined to collapse? Are short attention spans the inevitable price of living in the modern world, or can you regain your ability to concentrate and create?
Good news: You can actually hack your own brain to regain your focus. Here are several techniques for you to try. One or more of them may be just the ticket to banish the squirrels for good.
Go for a walk (or stare at a screensaver)
We’ve all heard the advice to take a walk when you get stuck. Researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of Utah sent several dozen adults out into nature for four days of backpacking without cell phones or computers. When those hikers came back, their performance on a creative problem-solving task improved by half.
But most of us don’t have time for four days of leisurely hiking. Luckily, there are a couple of shortcuts.
It turns out you can improve brain function with only a brief walk outside: researchers in the United Kingdom found improvements after less than 10 minutes of strolling through greenspace.
And it’s possible it’s the combination of gentle exercise and views of nature that does the trick. The U.K. study found positive effects when the walker traveled through parks, lawns, and playing fields but not when the path wound by urban buildings with many other pedestrians. Try starting with a nature walk before you sit down to try to write.
No green space nearby? Unable to walk? No worries: Another scientific study found that simply looking at pleasant photos of nature (the study used pictures of cute penguins) can increase both happiness levels and the ability to perform on tests of creativity and problem-solving. Just relaxing while eyeing a scenic screensaver might be enough to get your brain into the right mode to create.
Stop writing right this minute!
It’s counterintuitive, but forcing yourself to stop writing might be the most powerful tool in your arsenal – particularly if you haven’t been successful at settling down to write in a long time. Here’s a regimen to try:
Week 1: Each day (or as often as you plan to write), sit down and work on your story, novel, article, or poem for five minutes. Set a timer. When the timer goes off, stop.
Keep this up for about a week, or longer if needed, until the five-minute goal feels easy.
(Note: Most distractible folks can write for five minutes. Knowing there’s a timer going can help. But if you have serious trouble, start with two minutes. Just plan to increase your time more slowly in the subsequent weeks.)
Week 2: Each day, sit down and write for 10 minutes. And then cease. Stop cold. Even if you’re in the middle of a thought – STOP. (OK, you can finish the sentence. But only that!)
Week 3: Increase to 15 minutes. And so on.
Whenever you have any trouble with the increase, go back to the previous week’s level for another week.
If you are finding the time limit easy or twitching to continue writing, this is key: don’t cheat and write for longer (even if it’s driving you crazy). You run the risk of setting yourself back. What you may do is write for two or three sessions – still time-limited – in a single day. Make sure you take a substantial break between sessions.
Keep up this writing regimen until you reach your target session length and can focus again. And while you’re at it, consider keeping that ultimate session length to under an hour (see “Are short sessions better?”). It’s fine if you need to write more in a day (or write for a living) – just be sure to take a little break every 45-60 minutes.
Why does this work? Well, brain pathways fatigue with use, just as muscles do. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym, showed up for one or two days of hour-long workouts, and then, exhausted, not been able to face going back for weeks? This can happen with brain chemistry, too, when long-unused brain pathways, including those associated with attention and creativity, are reactivated. You need to sneak up on these pathways – strengthen them again without wiping them out. Forcing yourself to stop – deliberately before you feel ready to stop – means you haven’t exhausted those pathways, and they can regenerate more quickly to be ready for your next bout. Eventually, you’ll be able to sustain longer writing workouts.
‘Cue’ yourself to write
We sometimes make fun of writing rituals, like sharpening five pencils or placing daffodils in a vase on the desk, but writers who engage in these kinds of practices are leveraging a scientific phenomenon known as classical conditioning. In classical conditioning, when you pair a particular symbol – say, a piece of music – with a behavior, you will begin to elicit that behavior every time the symbol is presented.
In Pavlov’s famous study, the symbol was the ringing of a bell, and the behavior was the salivation of a dog. Pavlov originally trained the dogs by ringing the bell every time he fed them.
Of course, you don’t want to train yourself to drool at the sound of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But once you’re able to have some successful writing sessions, consider preparing for them by presenting yourself with the same “symbol” every time. Pick something that engages your senses. It’s very important to reserve your chosen symbolic sound, image, smell, taste, or feel solely for your writing sessions, as they must be paired repeatedly with only the act of writing, and not diluted with your other activities, to be effective. If you’re having trouble with consistency, try pairing your selection with a free-writing session rather than the novel you’re feeling stuck on.
Good choices for such symbols might be a special tea that you save for those late-night engagements with your word processor, or a soft velvet robe that you slip on only when you sit down to work on your novel. Or maybe you have an album of ambient music to which you always enjoy composing. If you use an isolation writing tool such as OmmWriter, you may be able to leverage built-in background music or sounds. The symbol doesn’t have to be overtly positive – a neutral one is fine.
Once you’ve built up a good association between your symbol and your writing behavior (most studies of conditioning use daily pairing for a number of weeks), you’ll have a tool to get you off the couch and to the desk. Just put on that album, arrange those pencils, or make that Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee that you only allow yourself to have when you are writing, and you should feel the urge to write.
Are short sessions better?
When it takes some time to settle yourself into the process of writing, the prospect of having only an hour here and there in which to write can appear to doom your hopes. But once you hone your skills at focusing, you’ll be prepared to take advantage of relatively short increments of time – and that might actually make you more effective.
Recent research in Canada found that “within-task mental fatigue” – that is, when your performance on a particular activity starts to flag meaningfully – set in somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour into a mentally challenging activity. Other studies of a variety of activities have found gradual declines in performance over a period of hours. But, in general, you do better work, solve problems more readily, and answer questions more accurately when you’re fresh.
Once you’ve mastered the techniques in this article, you’ll be ready to run with those tucked-in, stolen half hours, and use them effectively to build toward your writing goals. Add any or all of these techniques to your writing toolbox to master that monkey mind, tame that squirrel – and, finally, finish that novel.
—Valerie E. Polichar has a B.A. in cognitive psychology and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of California, San Diego. She lives, writes, and practices what she preaches in San Diego, California.