On a recent Saturday morning I took one of my famous homemade cappuccinos out by the pool and reclined on a lounge with a Dean Koontz and my AlphaSmart. My intent was simply to enjoy an hour of relaxed reading before getting back to a scene in my WIP.
The weather was sublime (“Looks like another perfect day, AH love L.A….” – Randy Newman), and I found myself contentedly sipping my brew and doing absolutely nothing. Looked at the sky, the clouds, a distant plane floating toward Burbank or LAX. A little part of my mind said, You can read now. But I didn’t listen. I was enjoying the fine art of loafing.
Which lasted about three minutes. Because something happened I know has happened to you. Up there in the writing bungalow of my brain, the staff was working under the radar. A messenger send down a memo. It was about one of the secondary characters in my WIP. It was an idea that brought her more fullness and sympathy and was perfectly in keeping with her backstory.
I grabbed my AlphaSmart and wrote a page of voice journal—the character speaking directly to me. It was deep and evocative and I knew a lot of it was going right into my book.
As I said, you know that feeling. In the car, the shower, at the grocery store—a great idea flashes and you jot it down or record it as a memo on your phone. And you can’t wait to get back to the keyboard.
This bit of serendipity got me to thinking that maybe I should try to be more systematic about my loafing. I’m naturally good at it, but how much better could I be if I used a little discipline?
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus”, Dr. Srini Pillay writes about our over-emphasis on focus. We have our to-do lists, timetables, goals. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it turns out we also should be practicing “unfocus.”
In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.
When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).
The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.
Dr. Pillay recommends building “positive constructive daydreaming” (PCD) into your day. I do this very well at my local coffee house. I stare. Out the window. Sometimes at people. I’m really working, though. That’s PCD time!
Another tip from the good doctor: power naps. “When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert.”
But the technique that really jumped out at me was this:
Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.
When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.
This is close to something I’ve done on occasion. I may have finished a draft and am doing the first read through. Something’s not working. I don’t know what.
I set it aside for awhile and do something unfocused: like pleasure reading, eating a Tommy Burger, or riding my bike. Then when I go back to it I think of a favorite author and pretend he’s looking over my shoulder at the draft. I have him say, “I think you need to ….” and just imagine what he would advise. It’s amazing how often this can break the logjam.
In light of all the science, then, I’ve determined to take a little more unfocus time on weekends.
I’ve also gotten more specific about how I spend my focus time. I’m a morning person. I like getting up while it’s still dark and pouring that first cup of java and getting some words down. I can write for two or three hours straight. But I’ve stopped doing that. I am forcing myself to take a break after 45 minutes of writing, to let the noggin rest a bit. Ten minutes maybe. Then back to work.
In the afternoon, from roughly 1 – 4, I can’t focus like I do in the morning. So I’ll write (or edit) in 25-minute spurts. Then I’ll get up and do something unfocused for fifteen minutes. Or I might lie on my back on the floor with my legs up on a chair for ten minutes, and deep-breathe. Then I go for my next 25-minute writing stint. I believe this is called the Pomodoro Technique.
Oh yes, and this cannot be emphasized enough: tame your social media distractions or they will eat your brain!
There’s a famous story (one of many) about the dictatorial head of Columbia Studio, Harry Cohn. He walked on the lot one morning and strode past the writers’ bungalow. It was completely quiet. He blew his stack and started cursing at the building.
Suddenly, the place burst with the sound of typewriters clacking away.
Harry Cohn shouted, “LIARS!”
In retrospect, maybe he should have given them all a raise. They were unfocusing!
So what about you? Do you ever practice “unfocus”?
For more on the mental side of the writing life, see The Mental Game of Writing: 29 Secrets For Overcoming Obstacles And Freeing Your Mind For Success.