Less Focus For Better Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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.

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43 thoughts on “Less Focus For Better Writing

  1. Love this. I will convert it to Word and email it to my Kindle. Now I think I need to take a look at the book. Thanks, Jim.

  2. I once read an interview with Charles Schultz in which he said that part of his creative process included just staring out the window. Jim, this article was timely, but with a slight twist. A change in my day job really screwed up my writing schedule. I’ve been trying to force that schedule back into place, focusing on how to make it work. It isn’t. This morning, while staring out the window, the thought occurred to me, why not let the old way go and try to come up with something new. And then I read your post. Time to unfocus and let those mental gremlins come up with a way to get back to the work I love to do.

    • Great thought that, Gary. Life often intrudes on us writers, and part of the process is finding ways to write through, or around, circumstances. Your staff will find the way. Good luck.

  3. Hi Jim,

    I’ve never deliberately tried this. I often like to take walks, especially when I’m stuck in my writing, but unfocusing to provide a fresh perspective–genius, plain and simple. I will definitely be practicing this from now on, along with taming my social media habit, because that can definitely eat your brain. Thanks for another great post!

    • Thanks, Dale. Walks are definitely a good idea. When I get to my endings, I often stew, brew, and do. I concentrate on it for an hour or so (stew) then take a walk to my local coffee joint for a jolt (brew) and then sit there and take as many notes as my brain gives me. Then I go back and write the ending (do).

  4. Wow, Jim. Very useful information.

    I like Dr. Pillay’s description of the activity of the DMN. It almost sounds like malware software scanning the whole hard drive, then defragmentation software organizing similar bits and pieces into common files.

    My positive constructive daydreaming – unfocus – is “mindless physical activity” (work without thinking). After lunch I tend to get “postprandial snooze syndrome” (sleepy – the blood flow goes to the gut and shortchanges the brain). So early afternoon is a good time for me to mow grass, walk through our woods, cleaning up trails, and unfocusing.

    Thanks for a great post!

  5. I wish I could control (and schedule) the moment ideas come. Unfortunately, sleeping is my unfocusing place. And too often, my inspirations come way too early. Like yesterday and today: 3:30 a.m. I try to meditate my way back to sleep. Doesn’t work. Have to get up and write. By 7:30, I’m exhaused so I go in the hot tub, thinking I’m going to relax. When the jets shut off at the 30-minute point, I realize that I haven’t. And I can’t get out because a new idea has floated to the forefront of my brain. As soon as I’ve collected as many details as possible, I run to the computer to write before I forget, trying to dry off on the way so I don’t electrocute myself. Only after the scene is fully outlined can I get dressed. Then I nap.

    I will try your question idea. Anything that helps me go deeper. Thanks.

    • As soon as I’ve collected as many details as possible, I run to the computer to write before I forget, trying to dry off on the way so I don’t electrocute myself.

      I’ve heard of innovative methods, Nancy, but this is a new one on me, to be filed under: You, Whatever Works For!

  6. Yes, unfocus time is essential. I tend to be a methodical machine in my approach to life, but I have learned that having those unfocused moments of time is what keeps things cooking.

    • I like the machine analogy, BK. I relate to that. I just try to work in that unfocus stuff methodically. There’s a certain irony there, but of course writers are crazy anyway so it doesn’t matter.

  7. Jim,
    Great post! . I discovered this with my first novel. Getting out to the shop to do some mindless sanding gets the gears spinning on all my characters and plotlines.
    P.S. Big fan here. Your books have been a great help and encouragement and I’m planning to re-read them while I work on my second novel. Keep them coming.

    • Very nice of you to say, John. Don’t you love that your bungalow is always humming? I do think we encourage it with these methods. It’s like giving fresh coffee and donuts to the union.

  8. I always take a book when I go out to lunch and 9 times out of 10 just end up focusing on the murmur and conversation around me:

    (I got the exchange:

    “His girlfriends are all crazy. Classy, but crazy.”
    “This one ain’t classy.”

    By doing this.)

    Also driving. I got the ending of the book I’m working on during my last road trip. It’s critical. Our brain is always busy. That’s its job. The trick is to give it something interesting to chew on instead of trying to quiet it down with a constant stream of input (yes, my social media is out of control.)

    Terri

    • I love those odd bits of dialogue, Terri. I once heard two guys in a heated exchange at Starbucks.

      One guy says, “But is that logical?”

      And the other guy, with complete earnestness, says, “It’s so logical it’s ridiculous!”

      • From the same conversation:

        “I’m sleeping in my truck.”
        “What happened?”
        “I went down to the Hometown and played pool. Next thing I know, around midnight she was dumping my stuff on the curb outside the bar.”
        “Why’d she do that?”
        “I dunno. It was her birthday.”

        At the same cafe, I was sitting over breakfast working a difficult scene in my head. An elderly lady slipped into my booth.

        “Are you okay? You look so sad.”
        *laughter* “Oh no, I’m fine. I’m a writer and was thinking about a scene.”
        “Oh, what’s your book about?”
        (It’s a graphic legal thriller.)
        “Um, Devil’s Deal is an adventure book.”
        “Oh my, is it about going to heaven?”
        *pats her hand* “It’s a very special book to me.”
        “Have a blessed day.”

        I asked the waitress to bring me her breakfast check.

  9. Hafta pipe in (& agree) with the mindless busyness mentioned above~ doing dishes, yard work, my daily run (ok, jog, OK, power walk), even driving (long distance & commuting) ~ paying attention “without focus” to the task at hand (?), & BINGO ~ a line or three, a twist, a whole new idea~ I’ll either scrawl on a wide ruled pad or dictate to the phone, & let it stew & mix together…
    Thanks for giving it a name~ now maybe the day-job won’t mind some “wool-gathering.”

    🙂

    • George, I think there is something to the act of physical “scrawling” that unloosens some of synapses we otherwise might miss. Happy gathering.

  10. Had to look up AlphaSmart. Small screen problem, but perfect it seems for not being on the computer with constant email notifications, new tweets, FB and Google temptations.

    • Too bad they don’t make ’em anymore, Eric. Ebay would have them, I suppose. I use mine all the time. Tuns on instantly, runs forever on AA batteries, doesn’t get hot, is light, and is just for text.

  11. Timely article, Jim. We’re getting good weather in Oregon and I can go outside and sit under the shade trees in the front yard. I’ll make sure to take my pad and pen outside with me. I have pads and pens all over the house. I need one outside with me too. I never know when the girls in the basement will come up with something for me to use. I’m finishing up a trilogy and getting ready to start another one and ideas are percolating. Such fun!

    • It really is fun, isn’t it? Having those pads all over is a great idea, Barbara. I find I’m using my phone mostly now, as I can dictate the thought and anything that follows, and send it to my computer later.

  12. Walking works for me. But it can’t be of the goal-oriented variety (like: must record 4,000 steps on the iphone health meter today or I die two years earlier than planned). The walking must be slower paced, somewhat aimless, and in green spaces. (Scientific studies have proven that when folks walk in green places vs city ones, their creativity levels rise).

    Since I’ve moved to Tallahassee, a town of parks, hills and what they here call legacy oaks (spanish-moss-draped and ancient), I have walked an average of 3 miles a day every day. I don’t run anymore. Just walk. It has helped my book work immensely. Plus it’s just good for the soul.

    I had to go look this up because I lost the piece of paper I had scribbled it on, but here’s the word from Thoreau, who knew something about opening your mind: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

  13. You got me curious~ (being named George, it’s inevitable, I s’pose…)

    A quick Google brought up 3 AlphaSmarts on e-bay ~ from $9.00 to $450.00 (plus shipping, of course…)

    🙂

    • George,

      I don’t remember precisely what I paid for my Alpha Smart back in the day (I had the regular Alpha Smart & not the Neo–couldn’t even tell you the difference between the two). But I’m guessing it was around $200 tops–that being high tech back in its day. 😎

  14. This unfocus idea works for me all the time. I will be talking to my roommate or daydreaming about prior conversations with others and it is like the cartoon lightbulb clicking on and I will think of a plot issue or a great line of dialogue. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of Agatha Christie. In an interview once, she said that all or most of her plot ideas came to her while she was doing the dishes. She was the queen of plotting, in my opinion. Thanks for another wonderful and helpful post. Oh, I downloaded Force of Habit and look forward to reading it. Have a wonderful holiday weekend!

  15. I tend to wander around the house. I had to explain to Hubster that I was working. Glad there’s a name for it. (Now, if I could just stay out of the kitchen during those wanderings.)

  16. I just went home for my high school reunion. My favorite places to write were on the pier near our house and on the bluff overlooking Mobile Bay. Now I remember why I was so thin when we lived there.

    Driving also works for me (just spent several hours on the road) especially if I leave the radio off and let my brain tell me what it wants to tell me instead of me hogging the conversation.

    Hammock time works too.

    • I believe blog mate Gilstrap got the entire plot of Nathan’s Run on a long drive. I would think it would work best if there’s no traffic. I have to go a long way to find that.

  17. Naps! Daydreaming! And I love the image of you pretending an admired author is peering over your shoulder. You have an amazing interior life.

    So many good examples here of how to keep things flowing between the conscious and the subconscious.

    I’m a Pomodoro fan and get my best work done when I have that intensity of focus.

    Given my raging ADHD, unfocusing is rarely an issue for me–I have a hard time not slipping into a pensive state. I feel really fortunate to be in a place in my life where “she lives in her own world” is finally an approved state of being. 😊

  18. Much to my amazement, there was almost no traffic – just me and the trucks. I have to go to a 100th birthday party today but am on vacation for the rest of the week so am excited to see what comes of all the brain pictures I took on the road. Nathan’s Run – gives me hope.

  19. Hi Jim,

    Einstein “Daydreamed” as a matter of course. It would drive his contemporaries crazy. It’s what made him Einstein. His enormous creativity within the context of complexity is what made him so unique, and that came from what he called “Daydreaming”. He would take long walks or sit under a tree for hours then go back and write something staggering. Like it says above, it’s not really daydreaming… like we did in high school (Girls, Cars, the Red Sox or the Dodgers), it’s work.

    It’s a tool that works. Always great insight from you Jim,

    Best, George Glennon

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