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. This article is updated from one published 21 April 2014 to connect it more clearly to that framework. 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. Links to other posts in the series are in the Optimizing Focus Spotlight.
Have you ever noticed that when you have lots of time to work on something, you don’t get as much done as you thought you would?
It’s hard to get started. You get distracted. Maybe you do a few small things first because they’ll just take a short time and you have lots of time for your main event. And then you get into whatever it is and all of a sudden it’s supper time or time for that late afternoon meeting or whatever and …
Time as part of the context.
The length of time you have available is part of the context in which you are writing. You can adjust the context to support the kind of focus you need to do the particular writing task you would like to work on today. You have probably already done this to a certain extent, perhaps focusing on the physical environment. In this article, I will focus on strategies for managing the time you have for writing.
Constraints can actually generate chemical reactions in your brain that help you focus better. This is one reason why you may find it easier to focus close to a deadline. The surge of adrenaline and other brain chemicals helps. Because academic writing projects are long projects, it’s not ideal to always be working to deadlines. Furthermore, missing deadlines or submitting work you aren’t happy with takes a toll on your confidence. How do you harness the effect of deadlines in your normal writing practice?
Break long periods up into chunks.
It is much easier to focus for a shorter period. You can experiment with how long those shorter periods are. They need to be short enough to give your writing some intensity.
If you have all day to work on your writing, break the day up into a series of shorter work periods. Decide on a start time and end time. Set an alarm (use a meditation alarm if you find a kitchen timer jarring). Stop when your alarm goes off. Make a brief list of what you would do next. (Don’t start the next thing, just write some prompts to remind you.)
That period can be any length that works for you. Take into consideration what kind of task you are doing. If it is tedious (like checking references or editing), you might want sessions as short as 15 minutes. You can focus on almost anything for 15 minutes. If it is the kind of writing that will make you lose track of time once you get into it, go for longer periods. More than 90 minutes is not advisable.
A Meeting With Your Writing is a 90-minute session. Some participants have found that they struggle to focus for the first part but then get into flow and find 90 minutes quite satisfying. Some have discovered that 60 or 75 minutes seems to be the natural end of their flow state. Sometimes participants break the 90-minutes into shorter pomodoro-style sessions with short breaks in between. Three 25-minute periods with 5-minute breaks between adds up to about 90 minutes. One participant finds that sessions of decreasing length work better for her: 45 minutes writing, 5 minute break, 25 minutes writing, 5 minute break, 10 minutes writing.
Take short, 5 minute, breaks between short sessions. Take a longer, 15 or 20 minute, break every 90 minutes. Take a longer break partway through the day. Get up. Walk away. Do something else for a break. Come back and start the next defined section.
Build a virtuous cycle of accomplishment.
You are a competent person who gets a lot done. Make sure you feel like a competent person who gets a lot done when you start.
Start each session by reminding yourself of what you have accomplished recently. Sit properly, plant your feet on the floor, and take a few deep breaths. Ground yourself in that feeling of competence and confidence.
This gives you energy. If you start from this place of confidence and accomplishment you have the energy to move forward.
You need fuel.
You can’t get the focus and energy parts of this equation if you ignore your physical body. Take time for meals. Proper meals away from your desk.
Do something physical in each break: walk, run, dance, yoga, a Wii fit game… Your brain is designed to work better if you are physically active. (BTW, a standard pop song is about 3 minutes and thus makes a good timer for your short break while giving you something to dance to.)
If you are physically restless this is a sign that your body needs to move. Go move. Especially if you are mentally stuck. You’d be amazed at how quickly some of those conceptual issues clear up if you take the dogs for a walk in the woods. You don’t even need dogs.
Drink water. Take care of your other bodily needs.
This post was originally published as Energy + Focus + Intensity = Higher Productivity 21 April 2014 and edited 18 April 2016. It has been substantially revised. Audio added and re-edited for the October 2021 Spotlight on Optimizing Focus.