When my husband walks in the door from a bike ride eager to talk, I look up from my computer screen and make eye contact. I’m trying to be polite, but truthfully, my brain is focused on what I was writing. Even so, when he finishes talking and I turn back to the screen, my train of thought has left the station.
Like many of us, prolific essayist and author Phillip Lopate has also had a family member sidetrack him while he was writing. When she was young, his daughter would regularly enter his home office, Lopate says.
“She had a hard time understanding that I was actually working. I would spin her around in my ergonomic chair and play with her a bit before shooing her away,” he recalls.
Hope Edelman, author of the groundbreaking Motherless Daughters, had two young daughters wanting her attention for a few years.
“If my daughters saw me working at the kitchen table in the evening, they’d just start talking to me as if I weren’t engaged in something else,” she remembers.
At the time, Edelman was usually working on short pieces and simply told her daughters she’d be able to talk in a few minutes. “Once everyone understood that, things began to go more smoothly,” she notes.
Blocking out distractions when you write
Interruptions and distractions are the bane of writers who work at home. There are few things worse than being in the zone and hearing a shutter banging, a cricket chirping, a phone ringing, a fly buzzing near your ear…and so forth. Waiting for a delivery or repair person can also be a distraction, and so can aches and pains. And that’s not to mention how writers self-sabotage when they feel compelled to check email or Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or a favorite news site.
How can writers reduce or manage these challenges and maintain their focus?
If an adult, such as a spouse, interrupts you frequently, feigning politeness like I do serves no purpose. I lose my mental placeholder and haven’t digested what my husband says anyway. If you’ve been doing this, bite the bullet and explain there are times you really need to concentrate. Perhaps agree that you’ll stick a Post-it® on your laptop to serve as Do Not Disturb sign when you need to focus intensely.
For other distractions, a number of writers find that a white noise machine in the background helps. In addition, in a New York Times article on the science of concentration, science writer Winifred Gallagher (author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life) offers a frequently cited method: Do your most important task early in the day for the best focus.
Productivity specialist Peggy Duncan (of PersonalProductivityExpert.com) suggests that you will yourself not to be distracted; just slog through and complete a first draft. “Remove your glasses if you wear them so you can’t see what you type,” she advises (and she’s serious). Duncan also suggests that writers be realistic about their most productive writing hours. As opposed to Gallagher, she holds that for some writers, morning may not be the best time to write. You may need to stick to the household schedule when you write at home, working around responsibilities. It may help your focus to find blocks of time to write, she notes. Gallagher says coffee helps, too, according to research.
As the grandson of A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle, Edward Jones, a meditation and yoga teacher studying to be a psychoanalyst, knows something about writers’ lifestyles. “The distractions you’re in charge of are relatively easy to adjust,” he says. “Turn off the phone and set up software that blocks you from using social media for a proscribed amount of time,” he suggests. Remember: you’re making a choice when you place your cell phone near you to answer texts, for example. You’re adding to your challenges.
While it’s not an instant fix, meditation is often recommended as a tool to improve focus. A sitting meditation practice has the practical benefit of teaching – or imparting – impulse control, Jones explains. (The technique entails finding a comfortable, stable seat, and sitting traditionally cross-legged, which you can do pretty much anywhere.) He likes the Tibetan Buddhist technique Shamatha, which “invites us to confront our impulses and more skillfully decide how to respond,” he says.
“Further,” Jones continues, “when we sit still and observe the movement of our breath, it doesn’t take long for the mind to seek something, anything, more entertaining. This could be a temptation as obvious as checking our email or as subtle as scratching our nose. When these impulses arise, the technique asks us to acknowledge the urge to leave what we are doing, to label it ‘thinking,’ and then return our attention to the movement of breath.” That’s how we begin to strengthen our ability to keep the mind in one place.
“It’s natural for the mind to wander, and reverie and free association can be potent instruments of the creative process. So it may be an interesting balancing act for a writer to harness this restless quality of the mind without allowing it to derail productivity,” Jones notes.
In a follow-up blog post to the New York Times article, Gallagher also endorses meditation: “The easiest way to train your focus up a notch is a daily attentional workout, most of which are based on single-pointed meditation [rather than examining all details of what you’re focusing on]. Research shows that people who adopt such a practice improve their ability to concentrate in daily life.”
Or try giving into the distraction and taking a break, like Lopate. Today he has a cat that plops near his keyboard or walks across it, and he stops and pets her before rearranging her on his desk. One of my writer friends takes his dog into the yard for a few minutes of play.
As for me, I need to take my own advice about the Post-it® idea and tell my husband if he sees it on my laptop, to hold onto highlights of his bike ride. I’ll listen as soon as I can.
Pat Olsen is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Sunday Business section. Her work has also appeared in Hemispheres, Diversity Woman, USA WEEKEND, and Family Business, among others.
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