Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The brain and focusing on writing

Thanks to a blog called Brain Pickings, I often end up reading books I would never have considered or thought useful. Today I ended up buying a book called “Focus” by Daniel Goleman. Initially I read the article (by Maria Popova, whose site it is) because it was talking about how needing10,000 hours to become a master at something is a myth.

But the article led me into thinking about how that 10,000 hours needs to include practice at mastering new and higher skills, otherwise you just plateau. Of course, I can’t help relating this kind of stuff to writing and my battles with procrastination. So far, “Focus” is giving me plenty to focus on! And I thought I would share some of it.

One thing I like to do when I am struggling to write is go to a café, where I find I can write quite freely without a problem, despite the noise around me. This is discussed early in the book, where Goleman talks about attention, specifically selective attention: “the neural capacity to beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli.” It explains to me why writing in a café with a multitude of small combined noises is easier than being at home with two or three bigger distractions.

He talks about attention in a lot of different ways, e.g. how new terms have evolved to describe people who can’t hold a conversation without having to check their phones at the same time. “Pizzle” is a combination of puzzled and pissed off – how you feel when someone does that to you. “Away” is any gesture that tells a person you are not interested, so checking a phone is one of these gestures. 

He also discusses the two kinds of distractions – sensory and emotional. We’re used to tuning out sensory things like cars going past our house while we read, but emotional turmoil is your life can be so distracting that you can’t pay attention to anything, let alone the work you are doing. Those who can focus best are the people who stay on an even keel and don’t let emotional disturbance distract them. If you can’t do this, you end up in loops of anxiety. A study has shown that even top athletes are affected by emotional disturbance (hence Tiger Woods and how long it has taken him to get back to top level golf - that's my theory). So if you are having trouble focusing on writing, it could be very beneficial to look at how to control emotional disturbances in your life (and also look at whether you let them over-affect you). In fact, he says “the power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”

He goes on to look at the effect of the internet and its constant bombardment of images, information, video, audio etc at us. It’s the enemy of deep reading – and here I would add it’s probably the enemy of deep writing. The momentary/constant elements and stimulation and movement of the internet is to the detriment of our ability to focus – “the shorter our reflections the more trivial they are likely to be”. Twitter, anyone?

He describes our attention as a pipeline, one with a limited diameter – multi-tasking splits what is in the pipe so nothing gets full attention. This led me to think about how distractions and constant sidetracking affects my writing and reduces focus. One thing I think was invaluable when I did my MFA at Hamline was the monthly deadline of packets of work I had to hand in that required sustained focus to achieve on time. I have also found that doing 30-day challenges with writing friends (writing for 30 minutes each day and checking in with each other) is great for focus.

Often books come to us just when we need to read them, even if we didn’t know it beforehand! This one popped up just when I was thinking about 2015 and my writing goals, and how to get better at ordering my time and focusing on what I was doing instead of being distracted. Maybe my subconscious was on the look out for something helpful!
I’m only a quarter of the way through the book so far, but already it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of how I use my writing time – I’m just now reading the section on day-dreaming, mind wandering and creativity, for example. 

So how was your focus in reading this? Did you get all the way to the end, or were you distracted? 
(This link takes you to Goleman giving a Google talk, and the book is currently $2.95 as a Kindle ebook.)


Snail said...

I did get all the way to the end, but I was distracted by his use of 'pizzle', which has a long and well-established usage as something other than a portmanteau word!

I confess to being easily side-tracked and dissuaded. But I think people might have realised that before I did!

Sherryl said...

Yes, I have heard that one before, probably from my days of pirate research and slang from the 17th century! Everything old is new again.
And Goleman says everyone is easily distracted!

Kristi Holl said...

This is it in a nutshell: "power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.” Regardless of what your particular "one thing" is, this is so critical!

Since I can't concentrate in coffee shops, I use the Freedom software to turn of Internet access for however long I need to focus. It helps me a lot.

Charmaine Clancy said...

True, true. My kids' taekwondo teacher taught me a good lesson when he said, 'Practice doesn't make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect".

Sherryl said...

Kristi, I am hoping he explains how to master this by the end of the book! But I have read books before that explain the problem really well and then don't actually give you any strategies or solutions.

Sherryl said...

Yes, that sounds like good advice, Charmaine - to always be reaching for "better". I'm not sure perfect is achievable in writing, but you can get close!

Ann Cassowary said...

Sounds like an interesting read. I'll have to check it out.

Thanks for sharing this, and a Happy New Year to you!

Sherryl said...

Section 4 goes into systems and climate change, Ann, which to me is a bit of a sidetrack, but I'm hoping Section 5 pulls it all together and gives me some strategies.

Angel Rio said...
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