There was a time when I demonized writer’s distraction. Divided concentration prevented me from getting more words on the page. And I cast my blame on texts, email notifications, a knock on my office door, the lure of checking the latest headlines …
If you’re like me, you let your attention drift any number of ways as you’re writing. It adds up to getting less done — or so I used to think. Is there a way to harness the effects of distraction instead of fighting it?
The human brain’s attention span, say researchers at Princeton University, acts like a spotlight. Just like an onstage beam illuminates a soloist for a short time and then dims to prepare for the next scene, your mind zeroes in on a task for a short time and then concentration dwindles.
That makes “steady concentration” a misleading term. Instead, your brain alternates between periods of “up” and “down” attention. During “up” periods, you focus on the job at hand. During “down” periods, your brain scans things nearby to see if anything else is more important. If nothing catches your attention, you shift back to your original task.
But when the brain finds a distraction, then the “down” period serves as a novelty to your brain — something new, different, or challenging, even if it’s just a short social media post. The novelty causes your brain to produce an infinitesimal droplet of dopamine, the neurochemical correlated to reward. Dopamine gives you an itty-bitty “high,” reinforcing the novelty.
That means distraction’s mental surge does more than simply get you off task. You’re “rewarded” for it. Those little distractions act like brain candy. “Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort,” says psychologist Daniel Levitin, “we reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.”
For years — decades — I worked to eliminate distraction or avoid distraction or at least reduce distraction. But when I learned about the chemistry associated with my attention span, I had an epiphany. Why not use my brain’s natural tendency to my advantage and get more writing tasks done?
To understand further, let’s review the facts:
Why not create my own list of short tasks to distract my brain when it is ready for a break? I could then use the “down” time productively. If I accept the fact that my brain will get distracted — despite enormous willpower or self-discipline — then it makes sense to program my brain to get distracted by my own personal sugar-coated tasks and be rewarded for it.
This way, I can feed my brain’s natural tendency to work in spurts … allow a “down” time for non-writing activities (but still accomplish valuable tasks) … and move forward with my writing. After all, “a To-Do list is (simply) a list of uncompleted things,” according to productivity expert David Allen in Getting Things Done.
The approach made sense, so I adopted it. I created a list of non-writing tasks associated with my writing. When my attention waned from the article or the chapter or the web content I was working on, then I switched to a different task, like …
Writing tasks like creating an outline, composing a lead, filling out body content, and putting together an enticing call to action require my best concentration. I work on those tasks when my attention levels are in “full spotlight” mode.
But when I find my mind shifting, I move to one of the items on my “distraction list” — one that requires a different part of my brain. SEO research … creating images … organizing my gathered information — they qualify. When that “downtime” task is done, I cross it off the list (yes, that act gives me a tiny dopamine surge) and return to my more pressing writing project. Each day or two, I update my “To-Do” list to use when distraction hits.
Over the years, I’ve used this “feed the distraction” approach to build three blogs while raising two children and working as a freelance content provider. It works. So I wrote a book and created a short online course, The 20-Minute Blogger, to help other writers learn to adopt the same principles.
“Pick battles big enough to matter,” said American author and educator Jonathan Kozol (b. 1936), “And small enough to win.” You can win at writer’s distraction. Just feed your brain the distractions you want it to have. Rather than come away empty, you’ll come away more productive.
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Award-winning content writer and author Kathy Widenhouse specializes in writing for nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
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