One of the most common problems a writer faces — in fact, one of the most common problems most people face — is the question of how to focus. I’ve devised one simple, elegant answer: the Focus Form.
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Music by Patrick Short (aka Electric Candles), who is better known as Kindest Cuts
Photography by Michael Sanders of Electric Monk Media
Art Design by author S.M. Beiko
You sit down to write a short story. The next thing you know, you’re on Twitter arguing with idiots about their idiocy. You wrote those tweets, but that’s not really the writing you planned to produce, is it?
How did you get there? It began innocently enough. First, you sat down to write your story. Then, you got an idea for a poem. You popped open a new file to jot down the lines of the poem, and it was going good but then you got hung up on a word. You decided to check your thesaurus for a better word with a similar meaning.
You spied a word option for which you didn’t fully remember the precise definition, so you looked it up online. While you’re online, you figure you’ll research something for that story, so you googled that. Then you got caught in the online drift. Before you knew it, you were on Twitter.
Then that idiot’s tweet caught your eye and stressed you out. People are really that stupid these days? What is going to happen to the world? You know you shouldn’t engage, but you engage anyway. You can’t help yourself — you’re wound up.
Your phone goes off — a reminder that you’ve got to leave the house in 15 minutes if you don’t want to be late. Now you’re out of writing time, and you barely did anything.
It’s familiar to me. So many things in the modern world can take your focus away, and the sad, paradoxical irony of the writer’s life is that the very device which enables your writing — the computer — is also the single largest impediment to your writing.
So what should we do? Ditch our computers and go back to longhand scribbling on legal pads? Let’s say you do that. Do you stop getting distracted? No. Your phone is still beeping. So you put it on airplane mode, and put it in the other room.
Free from distractions? No. You’re stressing out about money still. You’re getting awesome new ideas that are cool but not what you’re here to do. Your hand hurts from holding a pen, you haven’t held a pen this long since you wrote your last exam.
It’s easy to blame the modern world for our distractions, or our phones, or the Internet, or idiots who tweet. But the problem is our brains. So what can we do about it, short of lobotomies, or decades of therapy?
Try the Focus Form
My core tool in the battle against my brain is the Focus Form.
Let me walk you through how it works.
In the top left, you write WHAT you want to focus on and WHY.
The WHAT should be a work-session goal that can feasibly be accomplished during the work-session.
If I’m working on my screenplay for Edenbridge, I don’t write “Edenbridge.” That’s a hundred-page screenplay, and I’ve got an hour. Instead, I write what I want to do in this next hour: “Draft the scene where Sara dies.”
One easy way to lose focus is to think about your larger project and get overwhelmed, not the smaller part that’s in front of you. Focus on the part of the project that you can actually accomplish right now. The first ingredient in our recipe for Focus is to actually focus our efforts.
Writing a book seems like an impossible task, and it’s easy to procrastinate. But you can write 1000 words in the next two hours. Is that too much? Do you still feel like you want to procrastinate that? Drop it down. Write 500 bad words in the next two hours. My friend Natalee Caple and I often make weekly goals where we commit to doing bad work. Bad writing is better than not writing. At least you’re still a writer!
The point of the WHAT/WHY section is so that when you catch yourself getting distracted, you can quickly draw your attention back to WHAT you are supposed to be doing (not in the grand scheme of things, but right now), and WHY. This is the core purpose of the Focus Form — catching yourself and returning your attention to your task — and so this part is the most important.
Underneath your WHAT, you write WHY. Why am I drafting the scene where Sara dies? Usually, for me, this is a few bullet points. You want a nice mix of practical reasons and more inspirational reasons.
The point of working on my example scene is:
- to move closer to a finished draft of Edenbridge
- because it’s going to be an important, hard scene that needs a lot of drafts
- I want some practice writing a death scene
- this will help move me closer to the next stage of pre-production
- and thus hopefully closer to some more money!
- because my daughter is getting closer and closer to university and university tuition
You could have fewer points. As long as your WHY list is motivating — actually good reasons WHY you should complete this task — then it doesn’t matter how much or how little you write. If your WHY list is not motivating to you … then why are you writing this thing? Write something else!
(When I really have to get something done, even though I don’t want to, then I just write “to get this OVER WITH and move on to something more fun” — if the task doesn’t excite me, maybe being finished the task will. Or, I write down a reward — “so then I can eat my haunted ghost pepper chips” — and I just artificially motivate myself in that manner.)
Then you start working.
While you work, you try to catch yourself once you get unfocused. There are three things that usually un-focus people: (1) Ideas, (2) Distractions, and (3) Anxieties.
The key here is to catch yourself getting unfocused and then identify what is un-focusing you. Then you write it down in the appropriate box on the form.
Then you re-read WHAT you’re supposed to be doing and WHY. Then you get back on track, and back to work.
Let’s walk through these three categories:
You know when I get my best ideas? When I’m supposed to be doing something else. Sound familiar?
This is insidious. Often these ideas are great (or, at least, they sure seem great when I’m working on something else!) and I find myself tempted to work on them.
Strike while the iron is hot! But wait, I was in the middle of striking a hot iron…
You know what happens next! You keep raising your hammer above a newer, hotter, more exciting iron … and never strike.
Write the idea down, and evaluate it later … when you aren’t dying to distract yourself from working. When I’m done my work session, I look through these ideas, and if they are actually good ideas I transfer them to my long “Someday/Maybe” to-do list. Maybe I make a couple of quick notes in Evernote or something.
The idea will keep. Any author with any experience knows this: ideas are worthless. You can’t even copyright ideas, that’s how worthless they are. They will keep just fine. What is valuable is an idea properly executed. So stop not executing your ideas because you got a new idea.
You know how you are working and then suddenly you find yourself on Facebook? When you catch yourself doing this, close down Facebook immediately and write “Facebook” on the form. Then get back on task.
There are two things happening here:
- You are catching yourself in the middle of the habit, which is the first step towards breaking the habit
- You are listing out your different distractions
Later on, I will go through this list and see where I’m wasting my time. This gives me a more objective sense of what I’m doing and not doing during my writing session. I might think I wasted my time on Facebook, but maybe I actually wasted it reading articles that I found while on Facebook. Facebook might not be the real problem, just an enabler.
Your goal (when your writing session is over) is to figure out what you can do to prevent yourself from getting distracted in the first place. I noticed recently that I spent a lot of time checking the Facebook page of a toxic person that stresses me out, to see if I could anticipate what they might do next.
So I blocked that person. Now, I can’t check that page, and I’m getting more work done and checking Facebook less, and my stress level dropped 20% overnight. Will I be less prepared when they pull some crazy out of their hat? Not really. You can’t prepare for that stuff, you can just drive yourself crazy trying to prepare.
Ever get stressed out while you’re working, and distract yourself that way? I sure do. This ranges from anxieties related to the project (“This stuff I’m writing sucks hard”) to stressing about life (“I think my daughter’s mad at me”). Well, I’ve got plenty of time to worry about stuff later, when I’m not working. After I write that scene, I can worry about how much it sucks, or why my daughter’s not texting me back.
The core concepts here (and for the Focus Form as a whole) are drawn from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness meditation. You are “practicing attention” to catch yourself performing unconscious habits. You are isolating the things that draw your attention away from what you want it to be focused upon. You are objectifying abstract thoughts.
A lot of the time, simply writing on the form what I’m worrying about is enough to stop me from worrying. “My teenaged daughter isn’t replying to my texts!” Oh wait, that’s right … she’s a teenager, not replying to her Dad’s texts, because … she’s a teenager.
If it’s a bigger thing, like a real, legitimate worry, it will still be there to worry about later. Schedule some time to worry about it. That sounds stupid, but is an actual CBT technique that a psychotherapist would recommend to you, if you paid them hundreds of dollars. You create a “worry schedule” and then you try your best to confine worry to your scheduled time. What do you do when you catch yourself worrying? You write the worry down (like, maybe, I don’t know, on this form) and tell yourself you will worry about that later, during your scheduled worry time.
With enough practice, this mostly works, or works for most worries — although it does take practice. You delay your anxiety a bit, and it lessens, and you get some limits around it. In the meantime, you can get something done, or even just have a nice lunch.
Try It for a Week
Try the Focus Form out for at least a full week. It’s a little bit of extra work, but it functionally saves you wasting a lot of time.
If all that happens is that you realize you should block that toxic person from your Facebook feed, the extra effort of the Focus Form will pay off. Try to get into the habit.
I designed this form to be simple enough that you can sketch it on any blank piece of paper, but you can also download it by signing up for my newsletter. I'll also email you my best writing every week.
Let me know how the Focus Form works for you!