Over the years I have written a lot about focus and distraction because it is a perennial issue for academics at all stages of career. As I pulled them together for this spotlight, I deepened my understanding of the issue and how I approach it. I’m sure you are familiar with the iterative nature of understanding and knowledge creation in your own work. This understanding complements, rather than replaces, what I have written before.
You might want to bookmark this post and come back to the linked posts in chunks. I am recording these and making a playlist on Soundcloud. We’ll be adding new recordings as they are finished. I’m doing them roughly in the order they appear in the text.
How do you frame the problem?
There are a couple of common ways focus and distraction get framed as a problem.
- A personality flaw in the distracted person.
- A characteristic of certain kinds of objects/processes/etc.
Both of these lead to blame and attempts to eliminate what is understood to be the root cause. At an extreme, they lead you to think you just can’t do this and it’s not even worth trying. Because of something wrong with you. Or, because of external factors that are beyond your control.
I approach the issue of focus and distraction from the position that you are not broken, though you may need support. That support may include formal disability accommodations, therapy, or medication. You still aren’t broken, even if the process requires you to perform brokenness (see Morrison 2019).
And while social media, noise, visual clutter, and other external distractions are real distractions, they aren’t always distracting, nor do they distract everyone in the same way.
There are definitely things you can’t control, but how you frame the problem determines how you understand the possible solutions. There is no one right way to do things. Everyone needs to experiment to find what works best for them in the specific situation they find themselves in on a specific occasion. I wish I had a magic wand. It would make things so much easier.
Focus is objectively difficult, and you have a specific problem to solve. Let’s start by calling this something more neutral. In most situations you are either:
- Struggling to maintain your focus on the thing you want to focus on, or
- Doing something different from the thing you want to focus on.
This perspective means thinking about the specific instance of being distracted or finding it hard to focus and noticing what is going on.
Noticing what’s happening.
At the point you notice you are in one of these states, stop and make a few notes. You can think of it a bit like those dialog boxes that pop up when a bit of software crashes.
What were you trying to do right before you got distracted? (or when you were last focusing on the thing you want to be focused on)
Notice the details of how you were doing it, and what else was going on around you.
What changed? Can you recreate a plausible route from there to whatever you are doing right now? (e.g. was there a noise or a visual disturbance? Did you navigate away from your document to look something up? That kind of thing.)
Also notice the emotional stuff. Emotions can be hard to name, but they often have associated physical sensations in your body so you can start by just adding in how your body feels and if anything changed. Try to separate this from whatever stories you are telling yourself about what that means.
How were you feeling when you were focused on the thing you want to be focusing on?
How do you feel now, whatever it is you are doing?
Did you notice (or do you remember) anything that changed about how you were feeling around the time you switched activities?
Noticing the stories and judgements.
As you take notes about what’s happening, you probably have a gremlin or two suggesting reasons this is happening or has happened. Make a separate set of notes about these stories. Do this even if your gremlins are arguing amongst themselves. You don’t have to accept any of these stories. Some of them may be instantly recognisable as ridiculous or exaggerated.
Making notes about which stories pop up when this happens helps, not least because sometimes they trigger a set of emotional responses that affect your ability to deal with the problem even when you know, intellectually, that a story is untrue or an exaggeration. That might mean including the stories you are telling yourself about your reaction to other stories you are telling yourself. Try not to go too far down that particular rabbit hole.
WARNING: if noticing these stories is making you feel more uncomfortable, limit how much of this you do. Maybe notice that it’s making you feel bad about yourself and give yourself permission to stop this step and go back to the practicalities.
The stories you tell yourself might include the popular narratives I outlined in the introduction. They might include things specific individuals have said to you in the past. Noticing, and perhaps assigning them to gremlins or whatever you call the (often unhelpful) voices in your head, helps you recognize that they are not necessarily true.
You can interrogate these stories. You can tell them differently, or tell different stories. If you find a particular story to be difficult to challenge, a helpful first step might be to ask yourself what is possible even if it’s true.
Once you have a better sense of what the specific problem is you can try something that addresses that specific issue. This is where everything you’ve read about focus and distraction, and all the things your friends and colleagues have tried, come in handy.
What works for someone else might not work for you, but it’s worth a try. You can evaluate how it went and either tweak it a bit or try something else. You never need to believe that the reason a particular strategy doesn’t work is because there is something wrong with you. It’s probably not a good fit for your brain or your situation or both.
Notice what works and build on that. Making things 5-10% better is worthwhile. You can do this.
I’ve written a few things that might help…
I’ve had a few stabs at figuring out what the underlying issues are. As I said in the introduction, what I’ve written above complements these other pieces. My last attempt at an overview resulted in Optimizing Focus: 3 elements to consider. The 3 elements are the task itself, how you are feeling, and your context. That provides a nice structure for the noticing I suggest above.
Sometimes it’s easier to write about what feels off about a particular way of thinking about focus and distraction. “One thing at a time?” uses an extended knitting analogy to explain why that might not work well for some people.
Distraction, not the usual suspects is my initial attempt to challenge the pervasive idea that social media is the problem and turning off social media is the solution. After more thought, and some additional examples from clients, I wrote Focus and the desire for distraction, which might help you figure out why you can sometimes ignore a particular distraction – but not other times.
I’ve also written several things with real, practical suggestions. I try to make it clear why I’m suggesting a particular thing and what to consider when evaluating. How well I do that varies.
Meditation as practice and metaphor was inspired by a fiction writer who talked about how meditation has improved her focus, but also considers the idea that distraction is normal and your goal is not to never be distracted. It includes links with further details about how meditation might be incorporated into your writing practice.
When I wrote the 3 elements post, I immediately followed it up with a few posts going into more detail about how you might operationalize this way of thinking about focus.
- Select the task you most want to work on is about harnessing your intrinsic motivation to improve your focus.
- Choose the task to suit the context prompts you to think about what you can do in a relatively distracting context, and what tasks you want to prioritize in circumstances you consider ideal for focus.
- Choose the task to suit how you are feeling, takes a similar approach but in relation to your emotional landscape on a particular day.
I’ve then revisited these ideas and written about specific situations. A conversation with a workshop attendee prompted me to write about Dictation and focus. Sometimes your writing project brings up emotions that make it hard to focus and keep going.
It can be particularly frustrating when the thing that is distracting you is another bit of work. This relates to what I said about one thing at a time, but I’ve also written about specific strategies you can use when another writing project is distracting you or when that big pile of student work you need to grade is the issue.
Whether you are not really a one thing at a time person, or whether circumstances mean you can’t really do one thing at a time – there is an optimal number of things you can juggle at once. I’ve got some suggestions for what to do when you have too many active writing projects.
I suspect I will write more on this topic in the future. A Meeting With Your Writing (a core part of the Academic Writing Studio) includes flash coaching during the session for those who are stuck. Studio members can also get support for their specific focus issues in Office Hours.
I hope something linked in this Spotlight helps you improve your writing practice at least 5%.
Enjoy your writing!