Train Your Brain

Megan Norris Jones

I used to be an A+, top-of-the-class, nothing-less-than-perfect-will-do student. I could study like a machine, get it done, and move on to the next thing. But I’ve realized something lately. I don’t study any more. I’ve graduated from school; there are no tests, and if I want to know something, I just look it up. So my razor-sharp concentration skills that I was so proud of? Yeah, they’ve gotten a little fuzzy, and it’s starting to affect my writing.

There are plenty of contributing factors. I have three children who ask me a question or need something from me approximately every ninety seconds. Ninety seconds is not a long time to develop concentration. And if they don’t need me after ninety seconds has passed? I remember something I’ve been meaning to look up on my phone. Or I check email. Or Twitter (follow me @mnj23!). Or I’m already plugged into a podcast. And then a kid asks a question again. I am essentially training my brain to be distracted. And if I’m distracted when I’m trying to write, my productivity plummets.The solution? I need to train my brain to concentrate. First steps:

  1. Intentionally putting my phone down for certain periods such as meals, when talking with my family, while writing.
  2. Setting others’ expectations. “I’m going to sit down and work on X for 30 minutes. I can help you with Y when I finish.”
  3. Accepting that certain times of day will be filled with distractions and setting aside other times for more intentional work.

Once I’ve put these initial techniques into play, it’s time to move on to more advanced techniques.

Cal Newport discusses the importance of developing concentration in his book Deep Work, and he recommends a number of exercises to develop your own powers of concentration. One is a mnemonic for memorizing an entire deck of cards, as competitors do in the USA Memory Championship. That’s OK as a party trick, but if I’m going to take the time to memorize something, I want it to be something I really want to keep. When I got distracted on the USA Memory Championship website (ironic, I know) I noticed that they have events for memorizing poetry. Now that’s something a writer with an appreciation for language can get behind.

You might want to try your hand at memorizing poetry, scripture or beautiful passages from your favorite books. Anything you want to keep and treasure is great fodder for memorization drill. Doing these drills is just one technique to help improve your concentration so that when you have writing time you can truly focus on your story.

A second technique that I have been using to refocus my brain is to set myself a mental task at the beginning of a walk to think through. Sometimes I need to plan out an upcoming event or make a real life decision. But I often devote this time to working out a problem with my work in progress. Of course my mind still tends to wander as I’m walking, and that will probably happen to you too, but the important thing is to consistently draw it back to the topic at hand. You might remember five more things that you need to consider while you’re walking. Set a reminder on your phone, and return your thoughts to the question you decided to work through at the beginning of your walk. This daily practice has helped improve my concentration and therefore my ability to squeeze every second of productivity out of my writing time.

What are your best tips for maintaining focus when you’re writing?

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