Multitasking has become unavoidable—many of us are juggling writing careers, full-time jobs, family obligations, and a host of other distractions. But writers have a special problem: Sometimes, when we sit down to write, we don’t even realize that we’re still multitasking—still solving problems that have nothing to do with the task at hand, still splitting our focus in the name of efficiency.
But even though multitasking feels effective, research shows that dividing our attention between several tasks at once may not be very productive. So how do we resist the urge to multitask and instead focus only on our writing? Let’s look at a few scenarios and solutions:
You’re working on a short story and trying to edit as you go. Writing and editing are opposing tasks that have better results when approached separately. Let the words flow unimpaired and uninterrupted—then schedule a block of time later just for editing.
You’re doing research on the Internet for a historical novel. But one interesting link leads to another, and instead of gathering information about 18th-century clothing styles, you’re immersed in a celebrity tell-all site. Give yourself a well-placed visual reminder not to stray from your research—even a blank sticky note can prompt you to “stick” to your goal!
You’re writing a new poem when PING! A new text message! Of course you’ll want to see what urgent news awaits—but being sidetracked by communications from the outside world can derail your train of thought. Avoid temptation: Turn off all audio signals alerting you to new emails, texts, and social media messages. Leave your smart phone in another room, and silence your landline’s ringer. You can also look into website-blocking tools like StayFocused and Anti-Social, which can help prevent you from obsessing over your social media accounts.
You’re “in the zone” and writing productively—when suddenly an unrelated, distracting idea pops into your head. Keep a notepad handy to jot down the barest bones of the idea—to get it out of your system—and then go right back to what you were doing.
You’re finding it impossible to concentrate on your novel because the house is a mess and the kids are fighting and the dishwasher is making a scary noise. Unless you have a superhuman ability to micro-focus, it’s probably best to not even try writing under these circumstances. Deal with the situation at hand, then designate a different writing time for yourself—even if it means heading to the library, or locking yourself in the laundry room, or getting up at 4:00 a.m.
You’ve been diligently writing for hours but are now staring at the computer screen like a zombie. Time to take a break. Reward yourself! Even a 15-minute breather can refresh your brain and jump start your creativity.
You’re concentrating so hard on clever metaphors and witty dialogue that progress on your book has slowed waaaaay down. You might be second-guessing yourself. Or you may be trying too hard to anticipate what your weekly writing group will say about the lines you’re writing right now. Time to silence your inner critic for a while and just enjoy the process of writing.
Your story is moving along nicely…until you start daydreaming about the TV show you watched last night, or your kid’s soccer game, or how you’ll renovate the kitchen in five years. Writers are inherently daydreamers, but it’s important to focus solely on writing while you’re writing. Buddhists teach that every action benefits from being done mindfully. So whether you’re washing dishes or writing a short story, being mentally present is the key to finishing your task and enjoying it as well. Once you become aware that your thoughts are drifting, you’ll need to tell yourself—out loud if necessary—to refocus on your writing.
Still Finding It Hard To Focus?
For more tips on staying focused on your writing in a multitasking world, check out our other articles for writers:
- Organization and Creativity: How To Free Up Brain Space And Be A Better Writer,
- Writers: 10 Ways To Stay Sane When You’re On A Deadline
- Prewriting Ritual: Boost Your Brain Power Before You Write Another Word
- Time Management For Writers: Get More “Butt-In-Chair” Time
Photo by minifig
QUESTION: Does your focus wander when you write? What tools do you use to get back to work?
This was a very interesting article, and point 2 applied to me as I read it. I landed on your site quiet by chance as I was doing research for my book and was completely distracted from my objective! I think every word in this article is very apt.
I listen to instrumental music, mostly meditation type stuff on YouTube. Then free write with my eyes closed. That gets stuff moving!
“You’re finding it impossible to concentrate on your novel because the house is a mess and the kids are fighting and the dishwasher is making a scary noise”
This is my everyday reality!
I just put in headphones and drown them all out. Sometimes it’s those moments where there is chaos all around me that I am able to focus with the most intensity.
But then, sometimes not.