Tag Archives: focus

SQIRREL!

It’s been more than a year and a half since I did a few posts about trying to get my easily-distracted mind under control. I’ve fallen off the wagon and climbed back on more times than I can count, struggled with my overactive imagination (not in a way that’s good for a writer, unfortunately), and fought to hold onto focus while I’m working.

This summer I gave up the fight for a while, acknowledging that having the kids home is just too much of a distraction for me, and the stress of trying to work when my brain doesn’t want to co-operate was only compounding my frustration and distraction.

But overall, I’ve been making progress. And I thought that over the next few weeks I’d offer some of the tips and tricks that have helped me get a little more organized.

I’m not completely organized. And I’m anything but optimally productive. But the fact is that my brain throws up a lot of obstacles, and I’ve had to learn how to deal with them. I mean, in spite of my inability to focus much of the time (or my brain’s stubborn determination to focus on the wrong thing at the wrong time), I’ve published three massive books and a few smaller ones in a little over two years. Good ones, too.

That’s not nothing.

And if my experiences can help any of you, I want to put the information out there.

For today, we’ll kick things off with a quick description of what it’s like in my head. Because for some of you, this is all going to seem really basic or totally unnecessary. Maybe you can remember what you need to get done in a day without writing everything down and strictly prioritizing tasks so you won’t get distracted by shiny things. Maybe you don’t naturally forget minor things like picking your kids up from school because you FINALLY got in a writing groove. Maybe you don’t forget what you went upstairs for ten times a day, and you’re totally capable of organizing a three year-old’s birthday party without becoming overwhelmed and wanting to cancel.

If this is the case, congratulations. You’re definitely not me.*

If you were me, here’s how it would be:

Let’s imagine that every one of your thoughts is a pigeon. Every item on your mental to-do list, every upcoming event and thing you need to do to get ready for it, every memory and anxiety and interest and idea… all pigeons. Many people’s pigeons seem fairly well-behaved. Trained pigeons, maybe. Easy to catch when you need them, not too hard to hold onto. Pretty tame. If a pigeon needs attention, these people can grab them, do what needs to be done, and release the bird back into the room where the others are contentedly roosting and cooing, waiting their turns.

My pigeons… they’re not so tame. My pigeons are flying everywhere. Inconsequential pigeons flap around demanding attention. I’ll grab one and start working with it, and suddenly another one will be flapping around my head. The pigeons I know I should be catching stubbornly refuse to let me get close to them. Their feathers are getting ratty, my hair is full of pigeon poop, and we’re all exhausted. But they won’t give in. Between their wily ways and all of the other pigeons who are begging for me to catch them instead, it’s a real battle to grab onto that pigeon that I HAVE to catch.

Maybe that pigeon is the story I’m supposed to be writing. Maybe she’s planning suppers for the week. Maybe she’s something as small as finishing one bit of housework before moving on to another.

It’s usually easier to jump from demanding pigeon to demanding pigeon than to keep fighting for the flighty-yet-important ones, but I can win the battle sometimes. And if I can catch the right bird, things can go well. I might be able to hang on.

I might be able to get into the story and get some good work in.

(Sometimes I’ll even be surprised by an easy pigeon I can hang onto and pay attention to for hours or days. Not usually a USEFUL pigeon… but I’m sure my extensive knowledge of medical oddities and homesteading will come in useful some day, right?)

In any case, at some point another pigeon will need my attention. The kids will need to be picked up from school, even if I’ve only been in my writing groove for 20 minutes after struggling three hours to get there. Maybe I have to make supper after I’ve FINALLY tuned the world out and got into reading a book.

At those times it’s hard to change gears. To catch another pigeon. And it hurts, because my pigeons are so frigging NUTS that I know that as soon as I release one it will flutter off, and it won’t return willingly when I need it again.

Does that make sense? Can you see why I’m mentally exhausted by 4:00 every day? I mean, they’re only pigeons, but chasing them down is hard work, and breathing in feather dust is hard on the lungs.

There was a time when all of this meant I let things go when they were too hard. I didn’t finish stories because they were too squirmy and got away. My house was a certifiable disaster area because the little tasks of housework were too much to keep up with. I missed meetings and appointments and shifts because I wasn’t paying attention and I FORGOT. We were eating out too much because planning a meal AND having all of the ingredients on hand was completely beyond my mental capabilities.

Between depression and my focus issues, my life looked pretty screwed up. And the worst part of it was that I thought I was just scatterbrained and lazy, and no one knew how hard I was trying to be NOT LIKE THAT. How it hurt to feel doomed to failure.

Things are better now. Over the past few years I’ve learned to get into a routine, organize my day, and use tools that guide me through it. Basically, I’ve equipped myself with gadgets to help me manage my pigeons. Thick gloves to protect me from the scratchers, maybe, or a stepladder to help me reach the ones in the rafters. Binoculars to help me spot the ones I should be catching.

My pigeons are still frigging NUTS. But as I learn to deal with them more efficiently, they’re at least looking a little cleaner, and I have less poop in my hair.

My house isn’t perfect, but it’s getting cleaned regularly. My family almost always has clean clothes when they need them. A year after we moved into this house, we’re actually unpacked. I’ve learned to save money. And yeah, I’ve got a few books out, though turning my creative outlet into a career has brought a whole new set of problem pigeons.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at the following areas:

*Physical changes I’ve made that are helping me focus better (exercise and nutrition… kind of)

*planning (what I’ve tried and finding my planner peace)

*using cues and habits to keep me from forgetting things when I get hyper-focused on what’s going on in my head

*specific techniques that help me get work done when I sit at my desk

*…and something that I’m not able to discuss yet, but we’ll get there.

I hope you’ll join me, and that you’ll find a few shiny things to help you in your own organizational or creative life. These posts will have pictures, too, and

HAHAHA THERE’S A SQUIRREL** OUTSIDE AND HE’S…

*ahem*

Anyway. I’ll see you on Friday when we kick things off… unless that pigeon escapes and I can’t catch him in time.

*Though I should point out that being me is quite fun, in spite of everything.

**Not an exaggeration. I’ve actually had conversations derailed when I saw shiny things. It’s not good.

 


Pain in the Ass. No… Head. Not Ass. Head.

It’s a bad night for the pain.

Tonight it feels like a toothache filling my skull. It comes in waves, crushing and slashing, bringing nausea along to join the party. Light hurts. My children’s voices cut through me, and every movement of the bed makes all of it worse. All I can do is sit here with the lamp on, writing this out on paper to be typed out tomorrow, and try not to yell at the kids, cry, or throw up.

It’s not always like this. This kind of headache only hits me about once a month… at least, this hard. But the fact is that I spend a lot of time almost every day dealing with two problems. Pain is one. Either a milder version of this, or ice picks slamming into my temples, or feeling like I’ve been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat.

I can deal with pain, though.

It’s the fog that’s really hurting me.

The fog used to only come with true migraines, in the days before and after. It’s a feeling like my skull is stuffed with sawdust instead of brains–a physical sensation, and quite unpleasant. It brings a feeling like tunnel vision, though my vision is actually fine. And it makes me slow. My thoughts come slowly, as do my reactions. I can’t think of words, and sometimes can’t understand questions right away. And working? Writing stories, untangling plot problems, clarifying character motivations, and polishing my work until it shines?

Utterly impossible.

It wasn’t so bad when it happened once in a while. But now the fog is coming down every day. I can’t think. I can’t focus. I’m drifting in a slow, too-bright haze. I’m usually just lost enough that working is impossible, but the thoughts and ideas and potential are so close that it becomes incredibly frustrating.

Until now, I’ve been pushing myself through it. I’ve told people that everything is fine. I’ve made myself work in spite of the pain and the fog, working evenings and weekends to make up for the time I spend in bed when the kids are at school and I should be writing. I put off seeing a doctor because I didn’t have time. Because I had deadlines. Because I’d made promises (or at least dropped hints). I let my life get out of balance because of this one important thing.

A few days ago, I decided that I can’t keep going like this. I’m not doing my best work when I have no joy, when every word is a struggle. And let’s face it. Putting pressure on myself to craft a beautiful story when I can’t remember the word “spoon” is probably just compounding the issue.

This is not me giving up. I’m still working on this story every day, and I’m as excited about it as I’ve ever been. As of last week, I have all of the little moving pieces in place, and just need to put the time and the work (and the focus) in to finish it.

It’s complete in all but the final execution, and far better than I ever imagined.

All I really want to do is work on it (sleep and laundry and exercise and doctor’s appointments be damned). But it’s time for me to accept that I also need to make time to take care of myself. I have to stop beating myself up over deadlines and feeling like a failure over needing a few extra weeks to get this book ready for the world.

So I don’t have a release date for you yet. It will be after Christmas, which breaks my heart. I mean, no one with an ounce of business sense wants to miss Christmas. But you guys deserve my best. I’ve never given you less than that, and I can’t start now. I’m going to find out what’s wrong with me, and I’m going to get better. And this winter, I’m going to give you the book you deserve.

Thank you all so much for your support, for your encouragement and kind words. It all means more to me than I’ll ever be able to say.

I can’t wait to show you how this story ends.


Chill, Monkey Brain

 

Distraction.

We’ve talked about it here before, specifically in terms of me craving it. I can’t help it, you know? My brain doesn’t like to focus. Even when I’m working on something I’m excited about, it’s irresistably tempting to click over to Facebook every five minutes (no exaggeration), or to answer the ping of the e-mail notification just in case it’s a message that will grant me a hit of some feel-good brain chemical, or perhaps give me a novel (ha) distraction.

It’s not just a will-power issue, either. People joke about internet and social media addiction, but it’s not far off. I get anxious and irritable when I’m disconnected, even though I know on a rational level that I’m missing absolutely nothing of consequence.

Seriously, the pictures of my mom’s kitten can wait. He’s adorable… but will still be adorable after I finish working.

But even though giving in to temptation isn’t rewarding 99% of the time, I keep doing it, like it’s a compulsion. An addiction. I scroll through Facebook posts I’ve seen three times already, waiting to see whether something new will pop up. I read Cracked articles that are interesting or amusing, but make absolutely no difference to me in any practical way. My life is not better for looking.

It’s all distraction.

Well, I’m done complaining about it.

This morning I picked up a book called The Distraction Addiction [insert REALLY long subtitle here], by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. $14.99, more than I’ve ever spent on an e-book before, but as of 50% through the book, I think it was money well-spent.

It talks about a lot of things, in a semi-Gladwellian tone: Multitasking (good) vs. stitch-tasking (not at all good), the ways technology shapes culture, mindfulness, meditation, using technology instead of being used by it…

…and Monkey Brain.

From the introduction, emphasis mine:

The monkey mind’s constant activity reflects a deep restlessness: monkeys can’t sit still because their minds never stop. Likewise, most of the time, the human mind delivers up a constant stream of consciousness. Even in quiet moments, minds are prone to wandering. Add a constant buzz of electronics, the flash of a new message landing in your in-box, the ping of voicemail, and your mind is as manic as a monkey after a triple espresso. The monkey mind is attracted to today’s infinite and ever-changing buffet of information choices and devices. It thrives on overload, is drawn to shiny and blinky things, and doesn’t distinguish between good and bad technologies or choices.

 

Sound like anyone you know? Not a flattering comparison, but an unfortunately accurate one for me.

So as I read, I’m making some decisions. I want to chill my monkey brain. I want to use social media as a tool, not let it capture more of my attention than is healthy.

I want to change the way my mind works, not just fight distraction.

I want to use e-mail as a way to communicate with people who are important to me, not as a means to be fed more distractions.

I want Facebook to allow me to catch up with everyone… maybe twice a day, not every five minutes or when I’m in line at the grocery store.

I want to focus on my work for hours at a time, not in ten-minute bursts.

It’s not going to be easy, but here’s the plan as I see it so far:

  • Remove Facebook app from my phone. I can still access it via the internet, but it’ll be a little more difficult, and I’ll have time to think about why I’m looking. (Also, I can access my pages here and messages without a separate app. HA.)
  • Turn off the WiFi when I’m working.
  • I’m going to *deep breaths* not check e-mails until lunch time, giving me a chance to work without being side-tracked before I even get started. And no Facebook before getting out of bed.
  • Turn off e-mail and WordPress notifications on my phone. I’ll respond to them, but on my time, not my phone’s.
  • Get up early every day and try meditation. I expect I’ll be horrible at it, but it sounds like even a little practice at it really helps calm the need for distraction and helps with focus on practical and creative tasks. Ding ding! Just what I need, and this might be the key to the whole problem. And wasn’t mindfulness one of my goals for this round of ROW80? Hmm.
  • Stop carrying the phone around the house with me.
  • Stop notifications on Facebook groups that are just distracting me or (occasionally) stressing me out.
  • Put the phone/computer away when I’m with my family… and take a full break from the internet on Sundays.

 

  • And… okay, this might take a while. I’m going to break my habit of checking for reviews on Amazon, and I’m going to not check sales numbers every day. I’m turning my focus back on the work, on bringing my visions to life and putting my stories out in the best way I can, and I’m going to try to let go of the world’s reactions to it.

Whew. That’s going to be rough.

That’s not to say I don’t care whether readers are happy. I do, and I love it when readers are happy. It’s kind of why I publish, and why I do silly things like having an editor. But I don’t think basing my mood or my self-esteem on how people feel about my work (a thing that is not me) is healthy. Sure, good reviews make me feel good, but I can’t accept that boost without also allowing bad ones to make me feel crappy. I’d rather have good feelings come from flow, from focusing on something challenging and overcoming those challenges, from creating something worthwhile and beautiful, and then letting it go.

And also, it’s just another distraction from my actual work and life.

Know what this means for you guys? Nothing, unless you care to join me.

Okay, that’s a lie. It might mean a few, hopefully interesting posts here on how things are going with this. It might mean less angst from me over not being able to focus for crap (YAY!).

It will mean that when you e-mail me with a question, or comment on a post here, or say something wicked on my Facebook page (I do love when you do those things), that it might be a few hours before I respond.

And I hope (God willing) that it will make me a happier, less-distracted, more productive person. I hope it will mean better blog posts and better stories for you all. I hope it will mean a nicer, more focused mom for my kids, and my husband getting a wife whose mind is actually in the same room as him.

Because I’m going to be the boss of my technological extensions*, not the other way around.

Big dreams.

Let the experiment begin.

 

—-

*You’ll have to read the book for more on that.


Schedules, Habits, and Lying to Myself

Me: Well. Here we are again.

You: So it would seem.

Me: Indeed.

You: Yup.

 

Man, small talk is awkward. Let’s not try that again.

A while back, I started trying to schedule my time. It has not gone well thus far. When the kids were home during the summer, I was constantly torn between spending time with them and trying to get work done, and constantly feeling guilty about not spending enough time on either, or being distracted when I should have been _______. Working with the kids home just wasn’t working.

And now it’s September.

And they’re in school.

And I’m still distracted.

I swear my brain craves it. It wants to be distracted. It wants shiny bits of useless information more than it wants a book. Well, maybe not more, but I’m not good with delayed gratification, and a 100,000 word book is a bit of a long goal. Internet articles and blog posts and Twitter are immediate. Checking e-mail is fast and sometimes even rewarding. Chatting with friends is easy and almost always a good time.

There are days when I will read the back of a shampoo bottle instead of getting to work. Compelling stuff, that.

So here I am, trying again to find a way to stick to a schedule and make myself get the work done. I have big goals, which I’m going to share with you for reasons of accountability. Those goals are going to require that I be able to focus, which is going to be hard. And no, I haven’t talked to my doctor about medications to help with that, because I’ve heard they destroy creativity.

Not cool. Though some of the other side-effects sound kind of wicked.

So it comes down to a battle of wills, me vs. myself. All I have in my arsenal are a few techniques to try, a schedule and goals written on lined paper, a novel outline with plenty of wiggle room, and… well, a little help from my friends.

Here’s the plan:

Every morning, I get 3 hours to work (I take the kids to school and am back by 8:45, and I go to pick them up at 11:45). Assuming I get coffee, etc. made before work time, and accounting for bathroom breaks, I should be able to get 3,000 words out a morning if I’m drafting book 3 of the Bound Trilogy.

No, it’s not an impressive speed, but I need thinking time. And hey, it could go up. In the future some of those days will be for editing, revisions, and for other production-type-stuff when it gets closer to release time for book 2, but for October and November, it will be writing.

In the afternoon, I get 1.5 hours, and that needs to include walking the dog and any social media stuff. Because I’m not blogging or facebooking or tweeting in the mornings anymore, right?

Hmm. Jack might not be getting the hour-long walks he’s used to.

*sigh*

*sigh*

But I think that’s the key. During my work hours in the morning, I can only WRITE. No distractions. Facebook is only for word sprints with friends, not for reading or posting or chatting (good luck to me there). I have to train myself not to OOH, HANG ON, THAT E-MAIL MIGHT BE IMPORTANT.

We’ll see how it goes. If I can manage those mornings 5 days a week, I’ll have the first draft of book 3 done before the end of November. That leaves lots of time for rests and revisions before… well, I won’t get ahead of myself now.

GOALS:

60,000 words in October

60,000 words in November

Revisions on another project in December (for the 2 weeks  I’ll have before I get edits back on Torn, then a break for Christmas)

115,000+ words in January (editing, not writing)

 

Maybe if I write those goals on the wall, if I have a clock ticking come January (because there’s still so much work to do after editing, and no time to waste if we want this book out in March), if I put the pressure on, I’ll be able to turn away from distractions.

I’ve said that before, and it hasn’t worked out.

But maybe this time I’m not lying to myself. Maybe this time I kick procrastination’s ass, I find a way to focus, and I get stuff done.

We’ll see.

 


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