Have you got Focus?

Hot on the heels of James Scott Bell’s great post yesterday on the top ten events of the highly successful writer, I want to add to this by highlighting the downside of the digital age – its impact on both writers’ and readers’ ability to stay focused.

For writers, digital distractions are everywhere. At the moment my personal bugbear is my inability to wean myself off mindlessly checking the internet whenever I lose steam in my writing – the result? At least ten minutes of Daily Mail, Facebook and Gmail distraction resulting in – you guessed it, a complete loss of focus. Over the last week I’ve been paying greater attention to my writing habits (or lack thereof) and have realized that checking the internet has become a sort of ‘default’ setting whenever I’m stuck on a sentence or unsure of a passage of dialogue. I worry that my brain has lost the ability to focus for more than an hour at a time without craving some sort of distraction when the going gets tough. The answer to my problem is clearly weaning myself off the distraction itself but I’m surprised at how difficult this has become. I know I’m going to have to retrain my brain somehow as well as impose much stricter limits on succumbing to these distractions. My fear is that my ability to focus for long periods of time is already slipping away from me (can you hear the screams?…)

As readers, digital distractions allow ourselves to fulfill our craving for something new and more interesting whenever our focus wavers. Recently, I’ve found it is much harder to keep my focus on a book when my interest starts to wane. Whereas in the past I would plough on for a bit, hoping that a book would regain my interest, I now find myself turning to digital distractions much quicker than I ever would have put a book down before. It would be amazing to be able to create a safe room, look into options such as Soundproofexpert, and have that room as a digital hideaway, away from what ever distractions you may find on a day to day basis, or unfortunately even an hour to hour basis now.

I’m sure lack of focus has always been an issue for writers and readers, but I do feel that the increasing levels of digital ‘noise’ that surrounds us is making it much harder (at least for me) to keep the level of sharp focus I need on my writing. It certainly makes me less efficient and productive – although, thankfully, I still manage to pull off bursts of fear-induced focus which means I am completing my writing projects on time. I just feel that I need to develop techniques to sharpen my focus, increase my attention span, and spurn the digital ‘siren’ call that is all too easy to heed.

So what about you – do you find the digital world is making you lose focus? Have you developed strategies to overcome this while writing (or reading). Although disconnection is always an option for periods of time, it’s hard for this to be a permanent ‘default’ setting when so much of our world revolves around digital communications. So…any and all ideas on the best way to retrain my brain to maintain focus will be gratefully accepted…

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21 thoughts on “Have you got Focus?

  1. Ugh. Right there with you. As soon as my interest in writing wanes, I jump to the Internet for “inspiration.” Yeah, right. Thirty minutes later, all I’ve accomplished is losing thirty minutes. My plan is to get up and take a walk instead of going on the web. If nothing else, I’ll at least get some exercise. 🙂

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  2. Absolutely. Especially since I started receiving FB notifications while I’m in Word. No idea why, but they’re very distracting. I’ve had to completely log off of FB to get them to stop, rather than have 20 windows open at once.

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  3. I put projects on the home screen as shortcuts and do not go to browser until I take a break or done.

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  4. For me it certainly CAN be a distraction but I’ve also learned to make it work for me. While there are times where I hit a hard spot in my book and I wander off to check FB or mail and end up gone for 30 minutes, more often than not, I either ignore the alerts or visit the pages very briefly and get right back at it.

    And if I do have a day where I spend more time than I should being distracted by FB etc, I just close that page and work on my book till I need a brain break.

    I’ve been more of a single-tasker all my life–whatever I’m doing, my focus has to be on THAT thing. However I do feel my attention span has dwindled and tech has rooted itself in my brain. For example, I used to HAVE to work in complete silence. And while I still go through spurts of that, I’ll more often than not have HGTV on in the background, dreaming about owning my own home while I’m at work on a book.

    Still can’t stand to have music play when I’m writing. That is too distracting for me for some reason–I guess cuz I want to focus on the words and the song.

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  5. Like cutting down on caffeine and sugar, this had gotten to be a huge problem. I feel better and am more productive since October, when: 1. I Cancelled most of my on-line subscriptions to blogs and news outlets (not Kill Zone though) and 2. I Limited my screen time to one hour after lunch and one hour after supper. I set a timer now and when it dings, I shut down. I would like to reduce the time even more because much of it is wasted time–not learning anything important and not even enjoying it. So, motivated by Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s excellent blog post, I’ll start limiting my after supper time to 1/2 hour. Wish me luck!

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  6. My (undiagnosed) ADD and the internet create the prefect storm for wondering where the day went – let alone being productive~

    And I find myself “jonesing” when I disconnect ~ it seems as powerful an addiction as smoking or snacking ~ perhaps it can be equated to “mental snackage”…

    🙂

    g

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  7. The only thing that truly works for me is leave the house. I go to my favorite coffee shop — or, if the hour is late, my watering hole, which has an excellent happy hour Sancerre for $3 a glass. Neither place has Wifi. Problem solved!

    I used to work at Starbucks, but they have wifi (which of course I had to use). Then I got hacked there so that was enough to cure me of using any free hot spots.

    But here’s the weird thing: Sometimes I have the TV on low in the background here at home and while you’d think that would be a distraction, I find it is a sort of white noise — esp in an election year. 🙂 But sometimes, I get in that wonderful fugue state while writing and nothing can distract me…I look up and the house is dark because I forgot to turn on lights or the dogs have gnawed through a chair leg because it’s past their dinner hour. I wish I got to this spot every day but I don’t!

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  8. I too have ADHD in a bad way. Fortunately I have found if I can just sit still and write for fifteen minutes without letting myself get distracted, then another fifteen and another fifteen, I’m home running. I make a point to check my clock each time I want to move to something else, if it hasn’t been fifteen minutes, I make myself keep going. Sometimes that is hard. Usually after about forty five minutes I’m in the zone and don’t want to stop.
    That seems to work for me.
    Most of the time.

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  9. I’ll hafta try that 15 minute “reset” trick ~! (Tho I have so much to do I’m usually distracted by something ELSE needing to get done, so I manage to stay out of trouble… Usually)

    As to “white noise”- there is some music that gets me in the same sort of fuge state Ms. P references ~ and when I’m that focused and intent, my hands get cold – must be the blood going where it’s needed most -between my ears…
    🙂

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  10. I was going to answer earlier, Clare, but I had to do email and Twitter. Then I checked Facebook. And some of my feeds from blogs.

    Ahem.

    Kris mentioned going to a coffee house. I like to do that with my AlphaSmart. That’s a dedicated word processor, full keyboard. All it does is text. By leaving my computer at home I don’t have the temptation to stray.

    Of course, I have my smartphone…but it’s easier to set that aside.

    You’re right that focus is an issue. I worry about it especially for kids. How can they learn to concentrate? Get lost in a book? Study for hours?

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  11. Update: The half hour after supper thing did not work. It’s easier to do no internet than a half hour.

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  12. I came home recently and my son was on the couch with a smartphone in one hand, an IPOD in the other with ear buds, and a computer in his lap. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would like something for his feet.

    It’s easy to get distracted, especially at the computer when I’m struggling over the right phrasing or transition. I’ve found a walk down the hall and back helps a lot more than the headlines of the day.

    Great post.

    Mark

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  13. Thanks for this post! Internet surfing has definitely affected my attention span, though it’s worse for reading than writing. It’s a brain chemistry issue. Blogs deliver little hits of buzzy brain chemicals. And it’s a feedback loop. The more successful blogs are better at delivering the goods. Their readers crave shorter periods before the next hit and the blogs oblige. So a book can seem interminable as you wade through setups and character development. Until a skilled author sets the hook. Then it’s back to the old reading pleasure. So I don’t think it’s hopeless.

    With writing, on the other hand, the Internet sometimes helps.
    When I reach those stuck points in writing – about every two minutes – I’m really stuck. Pacing can help, but so can a (short) blog break. And it’s a lot healthier than cigarettes, though INHO they do the job better than anything. (I haven’t smoked in 25 years, but my most productive years as a composer were when I did. Or maybe I was just young.)

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  14. I think any writer will use anything to distract when bogging down – the internet unfortunately makes it soooo easy. A year ago I started doing my writing on a machine not connected to the net. It has nothing on it but an operating system and a word processor, and I don’t turn on the other computer until I’m finished with the day’s chores. It ain’t perfect, but it does let me focus longer and my productivity is up. One additional benefit – because it’s not connected, it’s not subject to all the updates and viruses and junk that plague connected machines, and backups are much cleaner and faster.

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