This post is part of a series on Optimizing Focus. Finding it hard to focus is normal. Self-flagellation does not work to improve your focus. Furthermore it takes time and energy that takes you away from your writing; it is another distraction. I firmly believe that you can approach your work compassionately rather than violently. You do not have to go into battle in order to write. I publish these to the Academic Writing Studio newsletters first, and then put them in the Library at JoVanEvery.co.uk. The first one, 3 elements to consider, has links to others in the series.
I do not have a meditation practice. I have taken a mindfulness meditation course. I have a basic understanding of the principles. My daily yoga practice might be a moving meditation but I should probably be more purposeful about that aspect. This article has been inspired by reading and listening to what Rachael Herron says about meditation in relation to her own writing practice.
I’m sure meditation can also be a lot of other things and for many people it is a deeply meaningful spiritual practice. This is not about your spiritual practice or lack thereof. We’re talking here about meditation as a practice akin to yoga, or running, or weight training, or whatever else you might do to strengthen certain muscles. There is plenty of research out there about the benefits of meditation. One of those benefits is increased ability to focus.
I don’t believe in magic bullets or Holy Grails. How meditation works for you is something only you can figure out. There is enough research to suggest that it’s worth a try. See what happens. I suspect it takes quite a while to see benefits, but spending 5 minutes a day sitting quietly trying to meditate is unlikely to harm you.
Meditation as practice
As Rachael explains it, meditation has 3 basic steps: be still (sitting, lying, standing), * focus on the breath, get distracted *. Repeat from * to * until your timer goes off.
Getting distracted is part of the process. You are succeeding if you notice and then go back to your breath. I think what getting better at meditation means is that the distraction is less disruptive. The time lapse between the distraction happening and you noticing the distraction gets shorter and the time between noticing the distraction and focusing back on the breath gets shorter.
The other thing that happens with practice is you can stay still for longer or maybe even get more still. Still is the hard part for a lot of people. Know this: it is okay to be comfortable. If you can’t sit cross-legged on the floor (tight hips are pretty common) then sit on a chair. Or use a cushion. Your brain is perfectly capable of finding things to distract you; you don’t need to start by introducing discomfort or pain. Also, there is such a thing as walking meditation, which is why I think maybe my yoga practice might count. The key here is that you are focused on your breath.
I have heard good things about Headspace, an app that helps you learn to meditate. If you want to try meditating, a quick bit of internet research or a request to your friends will probably turn up helpful resources.
How meditation as a practice helps your writing
To summarize Rachael’s position: meditation is an exercise for your brain that makes it easier to focus and to deal with the distractions that occur.
Did you recognize that *get distracted, focus on the breath* repeating sequence in the basic meditation instructions? That’s the part that’s helpful. Meditation helps you practice noticing distraction and then refocusing. This practice with the breath translates into your other activities. You will still get distracted but your writing will be less disrupted by the distraction.
Meditating for a short period as you transition to writing from other activities can also help you focus. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It gets you out of fight or flight. This is crucial for focus. If you’ve been busy doing other activities, interacting with other people, trying to keep a lot of your other balls in the air, a short meditation can quiet your mind before you start writing. This is why I often prompt you to stretch, adjust your posture, and take a few deep breaths at the beginning of A Meeting With Your Writing.
Meditation as metaphor
I shared the podcast episode in which Rachael talks about meditation with a Guide for the Journey client. At our next meeting she reported excitedly that it had been really helpful to be reminded of how distraction was central to the practice of meditation. We’d been talking about how to deal with a colleague that doesn’t respect her Writing In Progress sign on her closed office door and this example is a good illustration of how meditation as metaphor can help you deal with distractions.
The situation: You are trying to write in your office. You’ve closed the door & the blinds on the window to the corridor. You’ve put your Writing in Progress sign up.
The distraction: A colleague ignores the sign, knocks on the door, and walks right in without waiting for you to reply. They start talking to you about something.
The temptation: Now that you are distracted, you sigh, look up from your writing and deal with your colleague. You turn your attention away from your writing and engage with whatever they are saying to you.
The consequences of giving in to temptation: You have taken your focus away from your writing. Your mind is now engaged in the other thing. You struggle to regain your focus on the writing and have possibly lost your train of thought. Furthermore, your colleague has been rewarded for ignoring your sign. They now have experience of you putting a do not disturb sign on the door but being willing to be disturbed. They’re more likely to interrupt again.
The alternative (meditation as metaphor): When your colleague (rudely) walks in and starts talking, you do not look up. You do not turn your chair around to face them. You get distracted (obviously) but you say “I’m in the middle of something, I’ll come to your office when I’m finished” and continue with your writing. You focus on the writing, just as you would focus on the breath.
To make this work, you must be prepared for your colleague to think you are being rude. That’s okay. They were being rude. You also must go to their office when you are finished to talk to them about whatever it is. If they think you are brushing them off completely, they are more likely to persist in interrupting you to get your attention. (Figuring out how you want to communicate with this colleague and negotiating a better method is a separate problem.)
By bringing your focus back to your writing immediately, and not engaging in another topic of discussion, it will be easier to get back into meaningful engagement with your writing project. You’ll still be frustrated about the interruption. You can treat the frustration as another distraction: notice, return your focus to your writing.
You can do this for any distraction. Meditation as metaphor means that your writing process looks like this: start to write * get distracted, return your focus to the writing project * repeat from * to * until your timer goes off.
You can do this even if you decide not to try meditation as a practice.
You might also notice that my approach to this whole Optimizing Focus series uses this meditation metaphor. I don’t have a regular meditation practice. You can be terrible at meditation and still benefit from it.
3 focus training exercises to help you write and research by Katherine Firth at Research Insiders
How does meditation help your writing Episode 107 of The Writer’s Well podcast
Chapter 16 of Fast Draft Your Memoir by Rachael Herron
Headspace an app to learn how to meditate
Note: none of these links are affiliate links. I do not earn any money if you click on them.
Getting your head in the game: The pause before you start work by Katherine Firth at Research Degree Insiders
A loving kindness meditation for your writing by Katherine Firth at Research Degree Insiders
This article was originally sent to the Academic Writing Studio newsletter on 15 February 2019. It has been lightly edited with a few additional related posts added.