This post is part of a series on Optimizing Focus. The core post in the series is available here: Optimizing Focus: 3 elements to consider.
Focus is crucial to your writing practice, and indeed to keeping your plans on track. Everyone struggles with focus at least some of the time. There is nothing wrong with you. You might frame this struggle in terms of distraction or procrastination. You might think of it terms of willpower. You may have a story about what you need in order to focus that is at odds with what is possible in your current circumstances. You might need to experiment a bit to figure what strategies help you.
I use the term “optimizing” purposefully. Your goal is not to figure out how to stay focused for 60 or 90 minutes at a time no matter what you are doing or what conditions you are doing it in. Your goal is to be able to use the time you have available to keep your writing projects moving towards publication. During A Meeting With Your Writing, I prompt participants to notice the particular circumstances in the moment:
- what kind of task are you planning to work on
- what is your focus normally like when you work on this kind of task
- how might how you are feeling affect your focus
- how might your physical and mental context affect your focus
I then prompt them to determine what strategies they might try on this specific occasion to optimise their focus. At the end of the Meeting, I ask them to observe what actually happened and make some notes. Sometimes people share things.
One week, H shared a strategy she’d been using to enable her to move an emotionally difficult project forward. Although A Meeting with Your Writing gives you 90 minutes of writing time, she would work on the emotionally difficult project for only 20 minutes. Then she’d take a break and work on something else for the rest of the time. We talked a bit more about why that works and why you should never feel bad about deciding to write for only a short period even if you have a longer period available. (Our conversation has been edited and she has given me permission to share it.)
Listen to our conversationDownload Optimizing Focus when the task brings up difficult emotions (transcript) (92 downloads)
It doesn’t matter what is triggering your emotional reaction. It could be harsh feedback that you are having to respond to or memories of a past instance when you were criticised harshly. It might also be something about the project itself. Your research is meaningful to you. You may research distressing topics. You do not have to banish emotions. You need to find a way to do this important work even though it triggers difficult emotions. In some circumstances you may also need to get additional support from a therapist or other mental health professional. There is no shame in this. Therapists and others who do emotionally demanding work have their own therapists.
In the recording I mention learning something from my yoga teacher. I have written about that teaching in a different way here:
A loving kindness meditation for your writing by Katherine Firth at Research Degree Insiders approaches this kind of issue from a different angle.
For an introduction to the theme Optimizing Focus see Optimizing Focus: 3 elements to consider, other posts in the series are listed in that post.
A version of this post was sent to the Academic Writing Studio newsletter on 16 August 2019. Sign up for the newsletter.