We are living in difficult times. Economic uncertainty is increasing, we’re adjusting to new ways of working, and there’s a global pandemic behind it all. With everything going on, it can be difficult to get your work done, especially the work that requires deep focus and creativity, like writing.
Focus, optimism and sustained output are three key skills for successful authors. However, these don’t come easily. Like all useful tools, our skills need sharpening, and I believe now is a great time to put in the practice.
In November 2020, we gathered the Written Word Media community for a workshop on “Healthy Habits to Boost Your Writing” and went deep into this topic. In this article, we’ll take you through some of the key ideas and tactics that you can apply to your work today to start boosting your writing.
Step 1: Choosing Focus
Every day, we face an almost endless list of things to get done, people to speak with, and new information to digest. This deluge leads us to feel unfocused and overwhelmed.
The tempting shortcut is to multitask our way through this onslaught. In fact, today’s culture seems to celebrate those who seem to be doing a million things at once. But science tells us a different story.
In a study conducted by Gloria Marks at UC Irvine, researchers found that it takes 23 minutes to regain our attention after an interruption. Many other researchers have studied multitasking and found that constant switching between tasks reduces our productivity and leaves us more prone to error.
With this knowledge in hand, what can we do differently in our day-to-day lives? The answer is simple, but not easy. We can develop the skill of single-tasking. While focusing on one thing at a time might feel challenging at first, over time you can relearn the skill of focus and concentration.
I recommend you start small, use a visible timer, and proactively block distractions during this time period. To begin with, try single-tasking for 25 minutes before taking a five-minute break. Once 25 minutes feels easy, adjust the timer up to 45 minutes, then up to 90 minutes. Sustaining concentration is difficult, so go easy on yourself and remember, it’s called practice for a reason!
- Every day, block out time in your schedule to practice focusing on one thing at a time
- Let your teammates (or housemates) know you’re in-the-zone so you can minimize interruptions
- Try using a tool like Freedom to stop yourself from falling prey to distractions
- Start small — aim for short periods of 20-30 minutes while you’re learning this skill. Once you’ve mastered these, experiment with longer periods.
Step 2: Training Positivity
If you’ve read the news lately, I’d bet you were hard-pressed to find any positive stories on the state of the world. It can be easy to look around and only see stories of destruction, disaster, and decay that do exist.
In our own lives, it can be easy to fall into the same trap and only see the negative stories around us. Scientists call this tendency to focus on the bad over the good our “negativity bias.” When you consider our evolutionary story, it makes sense. Our brains evolved in a world much different than today; we had to constantly be on the lookout for threats to our survival.
Why does this matter for your writing? Well, when we’re in this negative state — what some call “below the line” — we aren’t in a brain state that is conducive to creativity, innovation, and productivity. I highly recommend you take three minutes to watch this video to learn more:
Simply becoming aware of this negativity bias is a big step. However, knowing about it is not enough. We need to dedicate time and effort towards practices that can transform our minds so that we can locate ourselves more easily and live and work “above the line.”
Luckily for us, decades of research in psychology and neuroscience show us that optimism is a trainable skill, and the benefits of it are vast.
Dr. Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology, documents many of the benefits of optimism in his bestselling book, Flourish. From improved health outcomes to increased motivation, performance, and career success, the evidence points to many positive benefits from training our optimism.
One practice Seligman recommends is called Three Good Things. It works like this: at end the of each day, you write down three good things from your day. After writing your list, take time to explore why that positive event happened, any feelings you experienced, and how you might bring more of it into your life.
I’ve used and benefited from Seligman’s practice myself, and it helped inspire another practice that I use each week called The Done List.
I use The Done List to reflect on everything I’ve accomplished — big or small — during the week. Each week, I’m surprised at how many things land on the page. Even when I feel like there is so much work left to do, The Done List helps me build gratitude and appreciation for everything that has been done. In short, it helps rebalance my negativity bias.
Tactic: Three Good Things
- Each night, write three things that went well in your day.
- Consider small things (e.g. “It was sunny on my walk to work.”) as well as big things (e.g. “We celebrated my daughter’s birthday at the park.”)
- Spend a little time reflecting on the details of this event, including how it made you feel and what you think caused this event to happen
Tactic: The Done List
- To close out our week, set aside ten minutes to jot down all the things you got done over the week.
- Keep writing until the timer is up; you’ll be surprised at how many things will pop into your head if you give it time.
- For bonus points, do this practice with a colleague or friend and take time to share and celebrate each other’s big and small wins.
Step 3: Charging Your Battery
So much of what I’ve learned about creating healthy mental habits and sustaining high performance is common sense, but it’s not common practice. We are all creatures of habit, and it’s difficult to change our ways. This is especially true when it comes to staying energized.
Just like the phone in your pocket, your body has a battery too. When it’s fully charged, we feel awake, alive, confident, inspired, and ready to take on the day. When it’s low, we feel tired, fatigued, easily distracted, and unmotivated.
Managing energy is a key principle of performance, and it’s crucial for any writer that wants to sustain their output over time. For a long time, scientists treated the body and mind as two separate domains, but we now know they are deeply interconnected. If you want a healthy mind, you’ve got to have a healthy body.
You probably know the essential building blocks that will charge your battery: consistent exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate rest. But many of us are unaware of the importance of taking real breaks throughout our workday.
One of the early researchers to point to the importance of breaks was Dr. Ernest Rossi, author of The Twenty-Minute Break. Dr. Rossi’s work highlighted the importance of what he termed the Ultradian Performance Rhythm. He found that humans have a biological rhythm of optimal activity and rest that runs throughout the day.
What’s the sweet spot? Dr. Rossi’s research found that we function best in concentrated work periods of approximately 60-90 minutes, followed by a 20-minute break. If we ignore our body’s need for short breaks, we deplete our energy, which can lead to burnout over time.
You might be thinking that taking 20-minute breaks is unreasonable, and I thought that too. I look at this as the optimal number, but my experience has shown me that even a 5 or 10-minute break has enormous benefits.
The key lesson I’ve learned about breaks is that the quality matters more than the quantity. I used to think to myself that scrolling Twitter or checking my personal email constituted a decent break from work, but this isn’t true. Our brains are still active and engaged in this process, and as a result, they don’t fully recover.
I now make a point to close down my laptop and phone whenever I’m on a real break. Often, I’ll step outside for a breath of fresh air, or simply do a few stretches in my living room. You might enjoy doing something creative, like drawing, or reading something light, like fiction.
Tactic: Take Real Breaks
- Proactively plan for breaks during your workday to allow your body and brain to rest and replenish
- Research suggests that breaks after approximately 60-90 minutes of focused effort will yield maximum benefits
- Experiment with micro-breaks of 3-5 minutes as well as longer breaks of 20-30 minutes throughout your day
Remember, Practice Makes Perfect
What I’ve outlined is a number of practical tools you can use to start creating healthy mental habits that will boost your writing. Some of these may have been obvious to you while others were not. Either way, knowledge of these ideas is only the first step; we need to consistently practice any skill to get better at it.
I hope you’ll find at least one idea from this article to try out in your own life. My encouragement is always to start small, treat it as an experiment, and offer yourself plenty of self-compassion along the way.
If you found these ideas interesting, then you’d probably enjoy my weekly newsletter, One Percent Wisdom, where I share one idea each week to help you work smarter and live healthier.
Connor Swenson is an ex-Googler who now coaches teams to find focus and rethink productivity.