Checking email. Scrolling social media. Sending a text. Visiting a random website—or five.
These are small actions that can significantly muddy up our minds. They splinter our attention. They spark or perpetuate racing thoughts: We start thinking about all sorts of subjects and questions and concerns when we’re supposed to be focused on writing or some other creative project. Am I going to the movies tomorrow with them? I need to return that email! Oh and the other one! What did I think about that Instagram image or that Facebook post? I wish I was more like that blogger.
And before you know it, you’re not sure where you left off or what you were doing. And it feels like thoughts are shooting from your brain like a cannon.
Reaching for our devices only adds to the noise already all around us. And lately it feels oh-so loud.
Lately, I’ve been noticing that my focus is off. I have a hard time concentrating for long periods of time. Which is why I’m returning to reading fiction, long fiction. Right now I’m reading Anna Karenina, which might take me months to finish, and that’s OK. Because I’m reteaching myself to slow down, to fully focus. I’m retraining my brain to focus for longer periods of time without needing the dopamine ding of refreshing an inbox or revisiting Instagram. Maybe you need this lesson, this retraining, too.
As such, below are small, feasible ideas on slowing down and sharpening your focus:
- Pick a book. Any book. The dictionary. A collection of short stories. A novel. Shut everything down, your computer, your phone, any other gadgets. Set a timer and aim to read for 15 or 30 minutes or longer if you can.
- Read a poem. Copy that poem into your notebook, re-reading and savoring each word as you write it down.
- Write your own poem. Write about something in your environment. Start or finish the poem by describing the teeniest tiniest detail you discover.
- Use your hands. Make something small. Make a collage in a notebook. Take cotton balls and glue them on a piece of paper to create clouds. Use toothpicks to create different shapes. Play with Play-Doh for five minutes.
- Put on your headphones, and play your favorite soothing, slower music. As a bonus, journal about whatever is on your mind.
- On an index card or sticky note, jot down several essentials you must focus on or why you’re working on your creative project in the first place. This is your reminder of the bigger picture, of your values, and why you’re sticking to them. Keep it visible as you work.
- Think about your surroundings. Think about what distractions you can remove. Think about what inspirations you can add. Or maybe you change your environment altogether, and work at a park or library or quiet coffee shop or somewhere else you love.
- Try a gazing meditation. Artist and art therapist Amy Maricle suggested setting a timer for five or ten minutes and focusing our attention on a natural object, such as a stone or seashell. You can do this with any object, such as a lit candle, a bowl, a photo. Let yourself deeply study the object, as if you were a scientist reporting back. Also, let it become your focal point as everything else melts away (“Matrix” style).
Today, it’s hard to focus because there are too many distractions, literally, at our fingertips. Our brains crave the quick fix. They crave the high of getting a new email, of seeing a new image. After all, we’ve trained our brains to do this on a daily basis for years. Which means that while working on a creative project, you’ll likely interrupt yourself plenty of times, and you’ll feel absolutely scattered.
Identify what distracts you. Identify the conditions that must be present for you feel like you’re inside your project, and everything else doesn’t exist—and focus on making that happen. Retrain your brain. Reteach yourself.
What helps you focus?