How to stay focused and overcome writers' block
Like you, I too am human. And to be human usually means we have trouble paying attention and focusing on the task at hand. We can blame our ancestors for that. We were always kept on our toes having to watch our backs for leopards coming to steal us in our sleep from our caves.
So I don't blame the human mind for its resistance to long periods of focus. We like to be stimulated, and it's hard to quieten our curiosity for everything that's happening in the world outside our immediate eye-line.
To get the most out of our minds we have to work with them and not against them.
What this blog post is not is ways to force yourself to push through the agony and work for hours straight at something. What this post is is a list of productive ways to hack your attention span and take productive breaks from work without losing your focus. For maximum efficiency they recommend you never work more than 50 minutes straight without a 10-15 break, so here I talk about some of the short breaks I take that are refreshing and maximise concentration and productivity once I sit back down in front of my writing task.
- Be OK with the idea you'll be distracted
The first step is accepting that concentration can be difficult and your mind will sometimes work against you. No matter how interesting the content or how looming the deadline you're prone to thoughts like "I'd rather die than write another word". And that's OK, you're not a failure. That doesn't mean your writing still can't be great. By getting less frustrated and upset over writer's block, you're less likely to give up. Accept the idea you'll get distracted from your work, and keep at it!
- Start with the headlines
Get your structure down, even if the words aren't flowing yet. Outline what you'll write and it'll make it easier to start a flow.
- Don't worry if it's terrible
Stop critiquing your work while you're writing, just get the words down and come back to them later. If you get hung up thinking that it might not be any good, you'll spend more time correcting what you've written than writing. Save the editing until the end!
- Write down everything you're thinking
If the words aren't falling neatly into line although you know the content you need to share, scroll to the bottom of the page and free write what you need to say. I usually use dot points for the topics I have to cover and my opinions on them. This makes it easier to refer back to my own notes throughout the writing process, and all I have to do is turn my thoughts into coherent sentences. If your mind wanders and you find yourself thinking of your next blog post instead of the one you're meant to be focusing on, grab a sheet of paper or open up a new Word Doc and write down your thoughts for it immediately so you don't have to worry about taking action right now, then put it away out of sight and get back to the task at hand!
- Move onto a different section and come back later
You absolutely don't have to write your article in order. If you've got a heading or a hot point you're not 100% on yet, just skip it. Write what you know and what you're certain of first, maybe it'll help you get into the writing flow and prompt you when you head back to the sticky section.
- If you're distracted, turn it into a real break
If your attention is waning and you're desperately seeking a distraction, turn it into a real break with a time limit. Get away from your desk. Make a cuppa, go for a walk, have a dance break. Do something that isn't your work with the clear intent of coming back and getting back into it. Try to limit extended procrastination that has the potential to turn a full day into a waste by turning distracted moments into genuine work breaks, hopefully taking away temptation during your continuous stretches of real work.
- Sit somewhere new
This is a surprisingly effective tactic. If you just cannot concentrate at your desk or wherever it is you usually write, move. Swap to your couch or your bed. Move to the dining table. Carry your laptop outside. Head to the library or a cafe. Just physically relocate yourself to shake yourself out of the funk you're in.
- Watch 5 minutes of trash TV
This works for me. Try it and if it fails, at least it was an option! When my sentences are coming out squiggly an effective tactic is switching tabs and watching a few minutes of either a trashy TV show or a show I've already seen before. It's giving an overworked brain a few minutes of rest and recuperation before jumping back into work! Netflix is a great option because you can see how much time you've watched to keep tabs on yourself to flick back to work and smash out another 100 words or so.
- Get up and clean something
A very effective tactic for boosting productivity. Cleaning is a known procrastination tactic, but if used correctly it can boost productivity. Clutter is an undeniable factor in productivity, so taking time out to either clear up the room in your eye line or to tackle those dirty dishes lingering in the back of your mind can rid yourself of unnecessary distractions and boost your sense of productivity, motivating you to carry that over into your work once you sit back down.
- Take a shower
In line with the rationale of cleaning. Never underestimate the power of a shower! Whether you're sick, sad, angry or frustrated, a shower is refreshing and rejuvenating. If you find that you absolutely cannot focus on the computer in front of you and you're contemplating bashing your head against the keyboard, jump up, hit the shower, put on a fresh set of clothes and come back to it with a fresh set of eyes.
- Go for a walk
Yes, fresh air really genuinely is good for creativity. Exercise is a proven method for boosting creativity, concentration and learning abilities. The body is designed to move! Just the process of being stimulated by changing scenery can get the creative juices flowing. A 15 minute walk will do, you don't even need to put on your activewear. Just get your butt outdoors for a change of pace, get inspired, and get your butt back to that computer.
- Indian classical music
Don't ask me why, it just works. I know the science linking classical music to concentration is pretty solid, but most of Western classical music irks me. I recommend this Indian Classical Instrumental playlist: http://spoti.fi/2dKN8xQ. Give it a try, and let me know if you agree!
By working in a productive cycle of stretches of focus and proactive work breaks, we are able to hack our own minds and squeeze out more productivity than we would if we tried to work several hours straight without break.
Nothing is worse than sitting at a computer for five hours before you realise you've been completely unproductive and achieved nothing. Jump up, get moving, take real breaks from your computer and each time you come back to your screen concentrate for as long as you can, giving yourself the permission to take breaks as you need them.