Focus, Flow and Commitment

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Welcome to the fourth blog in our new craft of writing blog series! In this series, novelist, poet and short story writer Louise Tondeur shares her top tips and writing advice. Read all the blogs in this series so far.

Focus, Flow and Commitment

by Louise Tondeur

In this fourth post in my series on the craft of writing, I look at whether finding focus is more important than finding time, and finish up by discussing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, particularly in relation to freewriting. Read on to find out more.

The missing ingredient from most advice on writing practice

Plenty of people will tell you to write every day. Others will tell you to make a habit out of your writing, but the following piece of advice is usually missing. It was even missing from the first blog post I wrote in this series. (OK, I did it on purpose.) What is it? One word: focus. Or the slightly more user friendly: Learn how to focus. Being able to focus could be more useful than finding time to write in the first place, or put another way, we don’t simply need a time slot for our writing, we need time to focus.

Here’s an exercise you can use, which sort of approaches things back to front. Spend some time writing and jot down how long you spent, what time of the day it was, and how much you wrote. This is an experiment and that first writing session was your control. Next time you write, record the same information but this time, as soon as a distraction comes up, note down what it was. If you’re super-keen, note down how long the distraction took you away from your work, although try not to let recording distractions become a distraction. As an alternative, you could spend a few minutes at the end of your session writing down how things went and noting distractions.

Analysing distractions
So far you have two lots of data from the above distraction tracking exercise. Now you’re going to put it to good use. In particular, note down any surprises, and analyse the results of the exercise by answering these questions:

  1. What sort of distractions arose?
  2. Note down the origin of the distraction. Did you distract yourself (by getting sucked into social media for instance) or procrastinate or did other people distract you?
  3. Do you know why you got distracted? (I often get distracted by social media after I’ve gone online to check a fact or a spelling.)
  4. Did anything about the writing itself cause a distraction?
  5. Did anything to do with the time of day cause a distraction?
  6. If the space you were in distracted you, note down how and why.
  7. Did any of the distractions come about because of mental load? For instance, you’re thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner and that makes you remember that you haven’t done the shopping yet, so you make a shopping list and then you remember that your in-laws are coming for dinner at the weekend and you end up not writing at all.

Now you’ve got those results, try the third part of the exercise. This time switch off your internet access and your email, take a kitchen timer (preferably not your phone because it’s easy to get distracted by a phone – in fact, put your phone in another room if you can) and set it for 25 minutes. Do nothing but write for those 25 minutes, then have a five minute break: move away from your desk, stretch, drink water. Repeat for another 25 minutes, up to 4 times. Then jot down any distractions that came up and ask yourself the above questions again.  

You may have heard of this kitchen timer idea. Millions of people around the world use it to try to avoid distractions. It’s known as the pomodoro technique and you can learn it for free from this website.

How to deal with it distractions
Whether you end up adopting the pomodoro technique or not, it’s a useful part of our experiment. Take one more look at the results of the distraction tracking exercise. Pay particular attention to the kinds of distractions that came up and whether they were caused by other people or by you. Here’s what you can do about them:

  • Make time for the distractions by listing them and giving them a time slot. This sounds counterintuitive, but if you schedule time to address whatever distracted you, when you’re writing you can tell yourself that there’s time set aside to do whatever it is later. This is why some writers schedule social media time, for example.
  • Did other people distract you? You could try writing at a different time or in a different place. It depends who they are of course, but you could try telling people you’re not available, that you’re turning your phone off and won’t respond to email. Create the opposite, too, a time when you are open to questions and available to help.
  • If the writing itself distracted you, take some time to figure out (or ask another writer) what you could do about it.
  • Address any issues that came up with regards to the space you’re writing in, even if they are only slight niggles.
  • If mental load is the issue, try a brain download. Get everything in your head down in a list or talk it through with someone. Here’s an interesting article on mental load and emotional labour in case you want to follow this up.

After all of that hard work, you should now have a sense of what it takes for you to focus. Here’s an example. Personally, I like writing in a house where I can hear other people, probably because I grew up in my parents’ hotel, and I don’t like total silence. I also quite like writing in cafés and on trains, as long as I have a bit of space to myself. I don’t like writing to music, and going for a walk part way through helps me to focus, so does tea. I love writing in the early mornings but if it’s dark outside I don’t go to my writing shed, I do some editing in bed, usually longhand, with a cup of tea in my favourite mug and stop when my son wakes up. What does it take for you to focus? How would you describe it? I’d love to hear about how focus works for you.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about a ‘flow state’ that anyone (not only creative practitioners) can get into. According to his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the flow state occurs when ‘a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else’. Think of the flow state as full focus mode. You lose any sense of time and feel fully involved with your work. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that ‘the best moments [in life] usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’. In other words, we get into flow when our work is difficult (but not too difficult), worthwhile and undertaken voluntarily.

A technique like the pomodoro is good for creating flow when you’re writing, especially as you get a reminder to come out of the flow state and take a break every so often. Another technique you can use to help you to get into a flow state is freewriting, which I’ll talk about next.

Using freewriting to practise getting into a flow state
Freewriting involves writing anything that comes into your head. The only rule is that you have to keep going. No editing or crossing out as you go. When you first start, try timing yourself for a reasonable amount of time. I do 1 minute bursts with my students when I teach this technique. You can use a starting word, character, place or theme if you like, or simply write down what you are thinking. When you freewrite, you don’t have to make sense, spell correctly, use correct grammar or punctuation. If you’re doing it by hand, you don’t have to be neat or stay on the lines. No one else is going to read what you write. I used to do this all the time in notebooks, most recently when I visited various locations to write short stories on location, the results of which became my short story collection Unusual Places.

In workshops I tend to get two different reactions to freewriting from people who have never done it before. Some regard it as an epiphany and (literally) give shouts of joy after they’ve experienced it for the first time. Others get stuck, don’t know what to write – or don’t dare to write it down – or they write a line and cross it out, sometimes repeatedly. The people in the second group (I’m guessing) are refusing to get into the flow state for some reason. Maybe they don’t want to let go in class in front of me and their peers, or maybe they’re scared of the prompt ‘write anything that comes into your head’ in case they end up getting round their internal censor – that’s the intention – or maybe they think I’m kidding when I say they don’t ever have to share what they write. It will take more than a minute but if you dare to let go, and simply let yourself write, you’ll might find yourself in full flow.

What about commitment?
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I included ‘commitment’ in the title of this post but haven’t mentioned it yet. I included it because achieving focus time requires commitment to the process. It might not be a sexy idea to talk about, and I promise it doesn’t involve swearing any oaths of allegiance (if we have to start swearing oaths, I want to hold an Agatha Christie in my right hand) but it is an important point.

Remember that Csikszentmihalyi said flow comes about when we’re doing something difficult? If a writer gives up – and I’m definitely including myself in this – when things get hard, they’ll miss that crucial lesson. The distractions experiment I describe above is only really the beginning. Turning up to write repeatedly – in the way I discuss in my first post in this series involves repeated fine tuning. You’ll never avoid all distractions but you will likely discover the best way to focus if you keep going, and that’s what takes commitment.

Books
Indistractable by Nir Eyal https://www.nirandfar.com/indistractable/

Deep Work by Cal Newport https://www.calnewport.com/books/deep-work/

Time Management for Writers by Katie Forrest http://katieforrest.com/books/ 

About Louise Tondeur

Louise Tondeur writes fiction, poetry, plays and nonfiction and has supported countelss numbers of writers with both written and verbal feedback. Before doing a Creative Writing MA at The Univeristy of East Anglia, she trained as a Drama teacher and brings her knowledge of the theatre into her conversations with emerging writers.

In the noughties, she published two novels with Headline Review called The Water’s Edge and The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls, then she did a PhD in Literature and Cultural Theory at the Reading University, started a family, and became a Creative Writing lecturer, while publishing mainly poetry and nonfiction. In 2017, she left her full-time job to focus on fiction writing. Her short story collection, Unusual Places, came out in 2019 and she is currently working on a series of crime novels set in Norfolk/ Suffolk border country where her grandparents lived for 40 years. Louise grew up in Bournemouth and after a long time in London, and spells in Cambridge and Norwich, she now lives in Hove with her wife and son and two black cats. Louise teaches on the Open University’s Creative Writing MA and blogs at: www.louisetondeur.co.uk.

Lou Tondeur
Louise Tondeur