In Focus: 3 elements to consider, I outlined three elements that affect your focus during a writing session: the task itself, how you are feeling, and the context. I have written a series going into more detail about what that framework looks like in practice.
I use the term “optimize” purposefully. Your goal is not to achieve some ideal state of focus that you can replicate every time you sit down. Your focus will vary based on the particular combination of task, feelings (physical & emotional), and context. Your goal is to optimize your focus for this session given what you are working with today.
One option is to select a task based on its compatibility with the context in which you are writing today. Context refers to the physical environment you are working in, how long you have to write, and your general state of mind. Choosing the task based on the context is also a major theme of Finding Time for your Scholarly Writing (A Short Guide). Having options enables you to write in places and at times you might have previously discounted.
Choosing a task to suit the context
If you have a long stretch of time and can write in a quiet place with few distractions, you might choose to work on a task that benefits from intense focus. Churning out a first draft. Making decisions about major structural revisions to a first draft and mapping out a plan for the next phase. Taking one section and really diving into the details from the structure to the word choice to the level of detail in your evidence.
If you have your research materials around you, you could look things up and rewrite sections now. If not, use the time to make the difficult decisions, generate a detailed list of research tasks, and leave notes in the text for what needs to be added in a future session. You don’t have to set a goal for how much needs to get done if you define your task clearly and then just stick with your task for the time you have.
Sometimes your context just isn’t well suited to that kind of intense focus. You don’t have much time. You might be interrupted. You are working in a noisy environment. Being able to work on writing projects in these kinds of environments opens up time that otherwise might seem wasted. Don’t try to force a task that requires intense focus into a context where you may be disrupted or where you find it hard to focus.
What tasks benefit from being done in shorter chunks of time?
What tasks don’t require the same intensity of concentration?
Trust your intuition. What could you do in this context?
Your context isn’t just the physical environment and length of time.
You might have a decent length chunk of time and conducive place to work but it’s a time of year when you have a lot on your mind: perhaps term is about to start, or you have a lot of marking to do, and even though you have scheduled time to do it, you can’t quite get the running list of all that work out of your head. Perhaps something in your personal life is occupying your thoughts. You might have to choose a task that requires less intense concentration or chunk up your longer session into a series of short ones because you can banish those other thoughts for 15 or 20 minutes at a time even if you can’t focus for longer than that.
Choosing not to write is one option
One way that you choose the task to suit the context is to choose not to write at all. This is always an option. I treat it as one of several options in this category in order to help you see that you do have other options. You can write something different. You can do a task that your gremlins think isn’t really writing but that moves your project forward. Sometimes the right decision is to not write and do something else: mark those papers, deal with all the things that are going wrong in the first week of term, devote time to political activism, whatever.
The interplay between task, physical and emotional state, and context is complex. In this article I’ve focused on just one perspective and suggested strategies that involve adjusting the task to suit your context. I will be looking at other combinations in other articles. The more choices you have around each of the three elements, the more likely you are to be able to write regularly and keep your projects moving forward. These tips on focus should also help with your focus in other areas of your work, too, which may mean you have more time and energy for your writing.
Optimizing Focus: 3 elements to consider outlines the overall framework and has links to all other articles in the series.
You need a writing practice situates this series in a larger context about how writing fits into your work and life.
Using all 3 types of writing time provides further information about the amount of time available.
This article was first published on 14 September 2018 as an email to subscribers of my Academic Writing Studio newsletter. I split the newsletter content into 2 parts. The other part is Optimizing Focus: Choosing the task to suit how you are feeling. Some of the opening and closing sections are repeated in both articles. I will be publishing future instalments of this series on Focus to the newsletter first. If you sign up for email about the Academic Writing Studio, you will receive one email a month on this topic or other topic related to your writing practice and one email on the 4th Friday of the month prompting you to review your accomplishments and adjust your plans for the month ahead. Sign up for the Academic Writing Studio newsletter.