In one week’s time, one subject has reeled me in from multiple sources: how hard it is these days to focus.
For very long at all.
Before we have to check our emails, texts, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest.
Or Google classy bars in Napa.
The only time it’s easy to focus, in fact impossible NOT to focus, is when I’m with my clients. All devices are off. No phone. No pinging notifications. Silence. Just me and my client for four or five hours, working together creating beauty in their outfits. It’s heaven. It’s creative. It’s juicy and it’s digital-free. Focus feels good!
But outside my work environment it’s tough to choose a task and stay focused on it, free of disruptions. I’m not the only one, of course.
From Entertainment Weekly magazine (December 4, 2015 issue), comedian Aziz Ansari talks about writing his book Modern Romance.
“…I’d say the hardest part [of writing a book for the first time] was sitting down and writing it–and not going on the Internet to waste time. That’s the hardest part of everything for me.”
I’m reading a memoir called Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. In a chapter called Cigarette Break she talks about the function cigarette smoking played in her early writing life. She says:
“Back when I smoked, whenever I got stuck mid sentence, or needed a breather, I reached for my pack of Marlboro Reds…I wrote and smoked. Smoked and wrote…Those cigarette breaks had provided me with a ritualized dream time. Smoking was good for the writing.”
After she decided that living was a better choice than continuing to smoke, she started using other distractions for when she was stuck or needed a breather, distractions like checking email, going on Facebook, texting. She says:
“Well, that’s okay, you might be thinking to yourself. What’s the harm in taking a couple of minutes to check in online? After all, isn’t a quick glance at your e-mails, Twitter feed, the Facebook status updates of all your friends kind of like a twenty-first-century version of the cigarette break? This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: The Internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything it’s the opposite…Even after all the books and a lifetime of some pretty decent habits–I still find it enormously difficult to resist its lure.”
When the Swedes were here for Thanksgiving, I talked to Maggan about her writing habits. She’s a best-selling author and a freelance journalist who writes articles on travel, trends, psychology and women’s health for magazines. “Do you have problems with distraction?” I asked. I could tell by her look that she did not. “But what about emails?” I asked. “I don’t check emails in the morning,” she said. “I get up and spent sixty to ninety minutes writing first thing in the morning. Then I take a break and have breakfast and then I go back to the writing.”
First things first. She tackles the most important thing first.
How many of you check emails first thing in the morning? Count me in. I may not respond to emails first thing but I do look at them first thing. Then I make coffee and sit down to do my morning writing which is unedited gobbledy goop writing that clears my mind. Sometimes I get some great writing ideas in those three pages that I fill. And sometimes not.
Then I spend twenty minutes meditating. Then I have breakfast. If I had some good ideas in my morning writing, they stay right there. The next step would be to harvest them by putting them on the computer, but I don’t do it. I go to the computer and do everything except the thing that would forward my writing.
When I do get some time to write, maybe on a Friday morning, I remember there was some good stuff somewhere in my notebook so I go back over the pages to try to find it. And then I get distracted. I should get some laundry done. But before that I might as well check emails and then … you get the picture.
The Sunday New York Times (November 29, 2015) had a great article about this very topic. Addicted to Distraction by Tony Schwartz outlines the malady and shares how he attempted (with some success) to get his brain back, to be able to focus for more than a few minutes at a time.
I was proud to read about a few habits he worked into his life, ones I have too.
- I read books. A year or more ago I decided I wanted to be a reader of books, not just a collector of books with enticing titles and great acknowledgment pages. (I always read the acknowledgment page even if I don’t read the book.) So I made a commitment to read ten pages a day. Sounds simple, right? And it is pretty simple. And of course, ten pages leads to twenty, thirty and so on. The author of the NYT article talks about how he uses reading books as a continuing attention-building practice. I’m encouraged.
- I don’t allow anything digital in my bedroom. It’s an iPhone/iPad/television free zone. I had gotten into a habit of reading articles in my Flipboard app or watching serial TV programs on Netflix on my iPad while propped up in bed. But a more pressing project has been sleeping better so for that reason I got rid of the digital stimulation.
Today I wrote a blog post about Beauty Bundles. It wasn’t first thing in the morning like Maggan does. It was after a Sunday afternoon walk. I knew I’d hate myself if I procrastinated one more day about it. So I put on Adele’s “25” CD and flipped my hour glass over and committed to 60 minutes of writing. It took closer to 120 minutes but once I got started I had no problem sticking with it. I scheduled it to post and walked out of my office feeling good about myself.
Oh, did I tell you I turned off my email program and didn’t answer the phone when it rang? I let it go to voicemail.
Gold star, right? Now if I can do that a few times a week, I’ll be my own private superhero.
I think I’ll need a lot more practice before I design my superhero cape.
How do you focus? Do you have more tips? Please share!