Justine: Tricks to Help You Focus

Depressed man with worried desperate stressed expression and brain melting into linesI have attention deficit disorder. I’ve had it my entire life, and because of a heart condition, I can’t take medication for it. ADD makes staying focused one any one task for a long period of time very difficult (unless I’m really excited about the task — like reading a book from my favorite author).

In the past, I’ve tried setting goals in order for me to get my writing done. But word count goals didn’t work for me, especially when I was editing. Did I really write 1,000 words? No idea…too much cutting/pasting/adding. Plus, there were some days I just couldn’t sit down to write because real life intervened. And on the days I could sit down to write, I’d often stare at the screen, or after working for an hour, be completely distracted by the stuff on my desk or the emails that popped up on my computer.

Lately, though, I’ve started doing things differently. First, I turned off notifications, both on my computer and my phone (please don’t ask why I’ve never done this before…I have no idea). During the hours of 8 am – 3 pm, my phone doesn’t ding and I don’t get any notifications of new emails/reminders that have come in (I have had to adjust some settings so people like my husband will always ring through, but I’ve also told him to call the home phone if he really needs to talk to me).

I also started breaking my work into chunks. I’ve been doing this for awhile. Jeanne talked about big-chunk/little-chunk writers here, but my chunking is more about keeping my attention on something before it starts to wander, then letting it wander to give my mind a break, then reining it back in again, repeating ad infinitum, whereas Jeanne’s chunking refers to  running out of creative juice after 500 vs. 2000 words. By giving my mind a break, I find it’s easier to get more work done–even with the break–because each time I sit down again, my mind feels fresh.

But even after taking away these distractions and setting myself up for focus bursts, there are still days where I just can’t stay on task. Especially now as I slog my way through (what I hope are) final edits before turning my book over to my editor. So I started doing a little research on apps that might help me focus and found an app I particularly like — because accountability is involved.

IMG_7194It’s called Forest. You can download it from the App store or Google store, and there’s even a Firefox plug-in (not sure about other browsers, but you can check). Basically, the goal is to grow a forest, one tree/bush/shrub/plant at a time. If you can meet your goal of not playing with your phone (or surfing certain websites, like FB or Twitter) for the time limit you set, your tree grows! If you don’t, your tree dies.

I adjusted the settings to make sure the app stays open on my phone, so I can both watch the time pass, as well as watch my tree grow. It’s been very helpful.

Another great feature, which I’ve only used a little bit, is you can invite other Forest users into a “room” where you all try to grow a tree/plant together. If any one of you uses your phone or turns off the timer, ALL the trees die! That sort of group accountability — even if it’s just to one other person — is really helpful for me to stay on task. Plus, I like seeing my little tree sprout up!

IMG_7193You can set the time limits anywhere from 10 to 120 minutes. As you earn trees, you also earn coins, which you can trade in for different kinds of plants. And the nicest part is the group who makes the app actually partners with organizations around the world to plant real trees!

What tools do you use to stay on track?

7 thoughts on “Justine: Tricks to Help You Focus

  1. Wow—I can see how you’d have some challenges staying focused, giving your medical issues. Congratulations on finding some coping strategies! The things that a person must endure to be a writer or, I guess, anything else that requires concentration.

    I’ve been really bad at staying on track lately, and I think it’s because I have a lot of story problems. This is pretty common for me and maybe for a lot of other writers, too—when I’m off track or having trouble or can’t find the conflict, I tend not to want to sit down and struggle. The other day I looked at a section that The day before I had thought was pretty good, and all I could think of was how much it sucked and what I should do differently. So it’s hard to stay focused when you don’t like what you’re doing.

    Normally I don’t have too much trouble staying on track. I’m not a big fan of tech beyond Word, and I don’t have kids or a husband, so I don’t have to keep track of anyone’s schedule but my own. So I never turn on email or my phone or anything else when I’m working. I just turn on Word, although I often need a browser to look up something as I go.

    But staying on target lately—I think the key is going to be a chain and a padlock so I can bolt myself to the chair.

    • Kay, have you ever thought of just pressing forward and not looking back until the entire first draft is done? Jenny was talking about this on ArghInk the other day (funny, I am not a regular reader of her blog, but I caught that one). Someone asked her about her writing process/editing, and she says she doesn’t do any editing until she finishes the first draft, then reads through it to see what the story is actually about. THEN she can figure out how to massage it the right way. Perhaps that’s something to try. At least you’d have words on the page and a completed first draft without feeling like you’re going in circles.

      Quite subconsciously, I’ve started doing that with my current story iteration. I only read through the first half last night, and surprisingly, only found a couple things that really need to change (then again, this definitely isn’t the first draft of this story). I do look back at what I wrote the day before, if only to get me centered in my story, but unless I see something GLARING (usually a typo), I don’t make any changes. Plus, when looking at what you wrote previously in the context of what you wrote AFTER, that may help you see your story in a whole new light.

      IDK…just throwing out ideas, because I think chains and a padlock might chafe. 😉 I can see this being a future blog post, BTW. Just sayin’.

      • LOL—yes, the chain and padlock would chafe, I’m afraid. Plus, future blog post, you are so right.

        I caught that blog post of Jenny’s, too, and while I usually edit as I go because it’s been necessary to feel solid footing behind me before I can move forward, this might be the book that has to be written faster and just get it all out, to be edited later. I’m using as inspiration two real-life FBI cases, and it’s been challenging to work the emotional/interpersonal arcs in there with the police activity. But maybe if I let go and just write it all as it comes, I can polish it up later. We shall see! I’m about to put words on the page….

        • Good luck and do keep us posted! I’m anxious to see how it all comes out (either strapped to a chair or willy-nilly…I vote for willy-nilly).

  2. Tomorrow will be my first real day of writing since the dog-from-Hell moved on to his new life. I’m hoping without that constant distraction of him whining and muzzle-bumping me. They told me Aussies were Velcro dogs who want to stay attached to their person. They did not tell me he would be the base side and I would be the sticky part, doomed to follow or be whined at and butted.

    Told you that to tell you this: I’m hoping tomorrow will be marvelously productive!

    • Aw, I’ve followed your trials with Kai…I’m sorry to hear he wasn’t the dog for you, but at the same time, I get you about the Velcro stuff and being unproductive. Chewie isn’t nearly that needy, but some days, the constant in/out is enough to drive me mad. Particularly when we have people doing work inside the house (he gets really skittish and clingy)…and we’re about to start a first-floor home renovation that should take 3 months. *sigh* I see much Velcro ahead.

      All of that said, I hope tomorrow is marvelously productive for you, too!

  3. I’ve started studying Japanese again, and I have to say, having everything in one place is a real benefit for studying (I’m only studying kanji, and I’m doing it on the phone). Plus, the software I’m using has a “study tracker” — I need to study for 10 minutes each day in order to get a circle; the thing also tells me how long my longest study streak was and all sorts of great data.

    Missing out on a day after a 42-day study streak is heartbreaking.

    I usually study for 15 to 20 minutes each day, too, so the low bar is not bar to studying for a decent amount of time. I get started, which is one of the biggest things for finishing anything.

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