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I’m having trouble focusing

I want to write a book but

Focus time

Welcome to the penultimate post in my ‘I want to write a book but’ series. Time management isn’t really about time itself because we’ve all got 168 hours in a week and that doesn’t change. Managing time is really about managing focus time for different activities This might sound obvious, but it isn’t always easy to work out how you best focus. I’ll give you an example. In order for me to focus better on editing my current book:

  • I need to make sure I get enough sleep.
  • I have a meditation practice.
  • I go on walks.

Now these things might not seem immediately obvious if you think about actually sitting down to write my book, but all of those things enable me to focus and enable me to think things through.

The best kind of focus for you

It helps if you work out what the best kind of focus is for you in different situations. I grew up in self-catering holiday flatlets in Bournemouth (a kind of hotel, run by my parents) so I’m used to having noise around me and I think that’s why I don’t like writing in complete silence. I know I need to be on my own when I’m editing fiction, but I could write a first draft in a café. I can edit a blog post with other people in the room as long as they don’t talk to me.

You might be the sort of person that likes to focus in complete silence, while some people like to listen to white noise or to music. I suggest working out:

  1. what level of focus you need for different activities (or sub-activities in the case of the writing example I just described)
  2. and how you focus best.

The traffic light system

My writing coach taught me to use a traffic light system for labelling tasks based on how much focus (or what kind of focus) you need. Red means the task requires maximum focus – you probably have to be on your own. Green means it’s fine to do the task with others interrupting you. Amber is part way between the two.

Why does lack of focus happen?

You might have heard that multi-tasking is impossible and that actually our brains do something called ‘context switching’ when we move from task to task. You might also have heard that it takes time to re-focus when we ‘switch’ from focusing on one thing to another. However, this concept of ‘context switching’ doesn’t tell the whole story. I think we need to combine it with the idea of ‘mental load.’

What is mental load?

Mental load = all the things you’re carrying around in your head. It’s like a mental to do list where some things don’t get crossed off, or at least, not for a while. Mental load = the things you feel responsible for. There are nuances within that sense of responsibility too. Mental load isn’t only: I’ve got to get dinner on, make sure there’s enough food in for next week, and remember to put the bins out but also: I’ve got to cook something everyone will eat, make sure I don’t overspend on the food shop, and is the recycling collection this week or next?

Those things were simply off the top of my head. We have a mental load for each different role we play in life, and each aspect of those roles we care to invest in. Try to make a list of the contents of your mental load and you’ll see just how much you’re carrying around with you.

Context switching + mental load = lack of focus

For at least some people, mental load is what we think of as multi-tasking. When time management gurus tell us that multi-tasking is impossible, they’re forgetting the mental load that we carry round with us even when we’re focusing on only one task, but especially when we’re switching between them. Sounds bad, right? So what we can do about it?

As simple as A, B, C

A= Awareness: get to know your mental load. Write a list of the roles you play in life and the various subcategories. For example, parenting is a role I play, but it has a lot of subcategories. Subcategories could include school (which might have its own subcategories) or swimming or nutrition or support. These will change over time. Meditation and mindfulness strategies can also help you to build awareness. Personally, I use the 10% Happier App and various meditation podcasts. It’s definitely possible to learn how to do it for free.

B = Box: create boxes for each of your roles (and subcategories if there are lots). There are three kinds of boxes. Use any that are appropriate:

  • Plan every day. Draw boxes in your diary or planner – in other words, block off time – this is when you will deal with whatever you need to in that particular role. Colour code these boxes if it helps. In other words, you’re writing down what’s in your head and you’re creating a visual reminder to do it. Since reading The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston, I’ve started doing the digital version of this using the calendar on my Mac / phone – which I can colour code – and syncing with the Things app.
  • Mental boxes, otherwise known as compartmentalisation. Once you’ve planned to deal with the various aspects of your mental load – so you don’t have to hold it all in your head at least for now – you can practise giving your attention to one thing at a time. It’s not always possible, but imperfect is so much better than not doing it.
  • Actual boxes – or other containers or even actual pegs / hooks – where you leave the things you need for that part of your ‘role.’ A drawer organiser, a stationery box, a basket for your keys etc.

C = Care: Three kinds of care are relevant when it comes to mental load:

  1. Make time for self-care, for all the usual reasons, but also because it gives you perspective time – which in turn builds your awareness.
  2. Make time to identify and care for your personal values because that in turn will tell you what to prioritise and
  3. Care about and nurture these priorities, which are based on your values, instead of all the urgent but unimportant things that fly at you every day.

Setting an intention

So, there you have it, an A, B, C plan to help you gain focus time when you write.  Be Aware, Box, and Care, especially self-care. It takes some setting up, but you should see some results after a couple of weeks. If this is pertinent to you right now, you might consider setting an intention as a (hopefully not too daunting) starting point. For example, I set the intention to write for 25 minutes every Thursday evening / morning and only think about my book during those minutes.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. Ready to work with me? Go here.

P.P.S. Here’s the final post in this series: I want to write a book but I need help!


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