I don’t have a deficit of attention. I have plenty of it, in fact I have more than enough for most people. I PAY ATTENTION TO ALL THE THINGS. All of them at once. I’m that person who walks around with a rain of Post-It Notes falling all around me. In addition, I’m impatient and distracted, and if I have to sit for too long, I start rocking in my chair. I carry a little book with me in meetings to doodle in so I won’t blurt, interrupt, twitch, or leave. Often, I find myself standing up doing something I didn’t intend to do. I’m every teacher’s worst student.
The world out there wants to grab my attention, too. It’s a very distracting place. Everybody works hard to make everything seem even more important. Advertisers pay big money for every tiny chunk of attention I have, and direct all their efforts to getting me to look at and listen to what they want. My time, my eyeballs, and my ears are valuable commodities, apparently.
If I am realistic, I’m outnumbered, overwhelmed, and way behind before I even start. Writing is what I want to do, and writing is hard in a distracting world. It is the essence of solitary, focused, attention. So how the hell can I be a writer?
I keep it very simple. This is all I do:
- Do one thing at a time.
- Make lists.
- Forgive myself
One thing at a time: Multi-tasking doesn’t work, and every iota of research on the subject suggests trying to do it is delusional. Plenty of people believe they can do it, but that’s because the process of task switching leaves you unconscious for about 50% of the time and moderately incompetent for the rest of it. Do those things that matter, one at a time.
Schedule: Yes, there are too many things to do. But writing is what I want to do. I loathe the advice to wake up an hour early, because sleep is essential for sanity. But I can schedule writing for the time when I might be, as they call it, relaxing – watching television, keeping up with Facebook, or drinking coffee. Half an hour is better than none, though two uninterrupted hours is the minimum for really deep work. Put it on the schedule.
Make lists: There are many important things to do besides writing, but I can’t do them while I’m writing. The best way to get things off my mental list (because I tend to rehearse tasks in my head over and over again if I don’t do them now, just so I won’t forget them) is to write them down as I think of them. The funny thing is, when I look at the list later, they don’t seem nearly as important.
Forgive myself: I refuse to beat myself up. Last month I couldn’t resist the Democratic National Convention, and right now, people I know are fencing in the Olympics. I had good intentions, I did, and I I even got up an hour early to write with a partner yesterday morning and the morning before. But that means I’m short of sleep, distracted, feeling strung out, and not writing. I couldn’t even focus on writing this. I just got sucked into watching the Olympics again. Fine. I’m going to go for a walk, I’m going to redo my schedule, make a list, and start over.
Tomorrow I’m going to a writer’s conference. Because I’m fundamentally introverted, anxious, and opinionated, I expect to feel awkward, make no friends, hear very little I haven’t heard before, and lose writing time, and in the long run it will seem useful somehow. At least it will make for good stories.