Just Sitting Here, Staring at this Blank Page: A Focus on Focus

The cursor is blinking, and your will is strong. It’s not a question of needing a kick in the pants–you have antique shoe frames for that–and yet you’re getting nothing done because your brain simply won’t focus where it needs to. This happens to me like every single day.

  • ayou need a kick in the pants. 
  • b) you cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
  • c) you cannot focus because internet.
  • d) you cannot focus because spouse/kids. 
  • e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
  • f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it.
  • g) you simply don’t know what happens next.

When it’s a focus problem

Let’s take Problems B, C, D, and E and call them the focus problems. I suffer focus problems a lot, for a lot of reasons.


Approximate level of distracting but beloved clutter at Milford Command Central.

Firstly, in addition to being a bad blogger, I am also a very, very bad housekeeper. Compounding the problem: my husband is perfectly happy eating takeout seven days a week, so there’s no external pressure for either of us to do the dishes until we’re out of something critical like coffee cups or silverware. But I cannot, cannot focus in a messy space. My brilliant little brother’s advice on this matter: throw the dishes out. But I actually like my dishes–as well as much of the other stuff that clutters up my life. Secondly, I procrastinate on things like replying to emails, texts, and phone calls, trips to the post office, calling the insurance company about that duplicate charge, etcetera. Thirdly, I like spending time with my husband, and finally, my brain will not limit itself to thinking about one book at a time.

But I have some strategies. Here they are.

Leave the house and go somewhere else. Must be somewhere without wifi.

My branch office happens to be the local diner. I go and write there as often as necessary, for as long as necessary. This solves Problem B completely and Problem C as well, because I have never asked for the public wifi password at the diner. I sometimes use Freedom and just shut myself off from home, but because I’m very rarely distracted only by the internet, that doesn’t work quite as well as the diner.

Get some good headphones and set some guidelines for interruptions.

Things get tricky when a spouse and kids are added into the mix. I haven’t had to figure out writing with kids yet, but two days a week, Nathan and I are both home together. The trouble comes because I like being at home with him (so the branch office is out) and because Nathan is able to transition from work to other internet stuff much better than I can. He’ll find something he thinks is funny or might be particularly useful to me and wants to share it immediately. But when I’m writing, I don’t stop and transition well. So we have an agreed-upon arrangement whereby if I have headphones on, all interruptions, no matter how useful, have to be submitted in the form of a ping on Gchat or an emailed link, which I am allowed to ignore until convenient. It’s such an easy signal, and it works.

Make sure there’s time to knock other stuff of the to-do list.

Between them, the diner and the headphones solve 75% of my focus problems. Of the remaining 25%, most tend to be solved by taking a day off to get All The Other Things done, stopping for a while to exercise, or now and then just taking a day off to do absolutely nothing related to writing. Nathan says I don’t do this often enough and don’t remember how to do it right. I’m working on that.

But about 10% of the time the problem is that I really want to be working on that other neat idea I’ve been wishing I could work on.

Consider caving in to the temptation of the shiny new idea on a very limited basis. 

That probably seems counterintuitive. But there are two arguments for it. In the first place, often my brain fixates on a new idea because deep down I’m afraid I’ll lose it if I don’t do something with it. This is not only easily handled, but it can be handled in a way that caters neatly to my obsession with stationery: I get a new notebook, dedicate it to the new idea, and stop what I’m doing long enough to write down everything I know or think about it so far. Then I can relax, knowing the notebook is there whenever I’m ready.

But the big argument for caving to temptation is this: that shiny idea can actually help move the one that’s stuck in the mud forward. I use those ideas the way I use rewards to help me motivate myself to work out or eat better. And like exercise motivation, it works better to celebrate incremental successes along the way than by trying to wait to enjoy it until the whole project is done. So sometimes I’ll decide that if I have a really great writing day or solve a particular problem, I can spend an hour or two messing with the new project as a reward. But the key is, it has to be a reward for something substantial, and when the reward time is up, I have to stop. So maybe if I clock a 4000 word day or something, I get that evening after dinner to play with any project I want. But then tomorrow, it’s back to the grind. As a bonus, sometimes that palate cleanser even helps me to come back to the original project stronger and more energized.

So those are my focus-sharpening strategies. Tomorrow: tackling the scary problems at the bottom of the list. In the meantime, how do you handle focus issues when you’re working?

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