How to Protect Your Writing Time from Mental Intrusions
By Christine Carron
A common problem for writers is how to stay focused during a writing session when you have competing priorities. Let’s set the scene.
There you are. Intrepid writer. You’ve kept your commitment to yourself, to your art, and gotten your derrière in the chair and then . . . where does your mind go? To everything other than the writing work you want to get done.
Not fun for any writer, but particularly frustrating for writers who have limited time for their writing due to the very real circumstances of their lives. That means they want to (and often feel they have to) make maximum use of the time they do have. That ups the pressure even more on their writing sessions.
The sour cherry on top of that sundae of stress fun? The focus challenges combined with the building pressure and frustration create a perfect environment for an inner critic attack. “Get on with it already. Focus! Write! What is wrong with you? Clearly you aren’t as committed as you think you are.”
Distraction in Action
In a recent run of The Jam Experience, this focus challenge definitely came up. Writer brains wandered to urgent personal emails awaiting response; what was left to do at work; and to construction project pickles. Three different outside tangles getting in the way of writing.
Yet, at the core, all the same tangle: non-writing priorities pulled away the writers’ concentration, even though they had done everything right from a “schedule your writing time” and “get your tush into the chair” perspective.
These writers are not lazy. They are not slackers. They are dedicated to their writing, to their projects, and wanted to make consistent progress. What they needed was a way to keep their minds on their writing and temporarily stop the intrusion of those outside priorities during their writing sessions.
Process to The Rescue
As a process improvement consultant (or more playfully stated, as a process stylist) part of my job is to see where an effort is going awry and propose adjustments to help get the situation back on track.
In this case, even though the writers experienced the problem during their writing sessions, it was clear the solution needed to take into account the reality of what was going on in their lives. It wasn’t like these writers were going to be able to quit their jobs, or foreswear email forever, or delay a needed construction project.
So the process I designed for them–Close, Center, Connect—begins with the source of the distraction and facilitates a clean break, mentally and emotionally, between the non-writing activity/priority and the writing session.
That means, interestingly, the start of the process begins with how a writer ends the non-writing activity. A little unusual, perhaps, but stick with me, because this process will help you reclaim focus for your writing.
Step #1: Close
When we feel pressure, we tend to rush. Writing and creativity require mental spaciousness. Relaxed focus instead of tension. We want to start creating that mental ease way before we hit our writing session.
Instead of rushing pell-mell from work, or urgent emails, or construction challenges, and the like, the Close step invites you to create (and use) a shut-down protocol on the work that grabs at your focus during your writing time.
Like a computer powering down, you want your brain to officially feel like it can cleanly release that priority for the day.
Think: well-crafted, intentional finish.
For a writer with the full-time job, their Close step (i.e., work shut-down protocol) might include:
- a final check of email.
- a confirmation of what meetings are coming up.
- setting the work priorities for the next day.
- straightening their desk.
- powering down their computer.
- whatever other ritual that will help them feel like they dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of their work day.
When a writer intentionally and consistently creates this clear closing to the work and activities they do before their writing sessions, it will help their mind to let go of that work during the writing sessions. That means less mental intrusions, because their mind understands that work is done for the time being.
Step #2: Center
The Center step is about getting yourself back to equilibrium after you close the non-writing activity and before you start writing. Think of this as pushing your reset button.
In the first iteration of the process, I called this step, “Clear,” as I was thinking about writers offloading stress. As the writers tested the process, however, we all noticed that while sometimes they had amped up energy they had to get rid of, at other times they were more exhausted or fatigued after closing out whatever they were doing before they wanted to start writing.
In the latter situations, “Clear” didn’t work conceptually, as the writers were already “over-cleared,” i.e., they were spent. So I revised the middle step to be Center, and then it clicked into place. The new name held no matter if a writer had to reclaim equilibrium by releasing energy or by renewing it.
How each writer completes the Center step is up to them. Off loading energy for one writer might be pulling on their tennis shoes and going for an intense run, for another writer it could be a short, head-banging dance break. The renewing approaches will be as varied: from simple deep breaths to gentle stretching or singing a song.
You know you best, so have fun building your own menu of tactics and strategies to use during the Center step. Then you will have lots of personalized options to get yourself back in balance before you dive into the final step of the process.
Step #3: Connect
Just as you intentionally close one priority with the first step of this process, you now intentionally open your writing session with the Connect step. This will help maintain the sense of ease and spaciousness you will have created through the Close and the Center steps.
With the Connect step, you want to take a beat (or a few) to remind yourself where you are in your writing, what you have planned for this session, and perhaps run through an opening ritual. Lighting a candle, getting a cup of tea, and shutting the door (if you have one) of your writing space as a final symbolic reminder of the temporary line you are setting between whatever else is going on in your life and your writing time.
Then you write, enjoying the focus you’ve created by flowing through the Close, Center, Connect process. Wahoo!
Progress Not Perfection
Will this process guarantee complete and immediate separation from your writing work and the rest of your life, like the peeps in the TV show Severance? No, and thank goodness as that would be a little scary.
Instead, it helps you create a useful, mental separation between your writing time and everything else that is going on in your life. The Close, Center, Connect process does this by honoring all the different priorities in your life, rather than pitting them against each other. They no longer have to duke it out for your attention, as you are keeping them in different rings.
As you practice this process, your skills will grow at holding an easeful boundary around each priority. One that will gift you with greater focus during your writing time. That means less mental intrusions, less inner critic rant, and more writing productivity. Sweet!