Sometimes the real challenge to completing a story is sustaining focus. In this post, Jessica Hatch shares 5 ways to keep focus when burned out and brain-fried.
We've all experienced burnout, that fried-brain feel. It can come from many different catalysts: Being overworked and underslept. Depression. Self-doubt. Imposter syndrome. Even a run-of-the-mill straight of bad days.
Though the symptoms and consequences of burnout can be dire, in our productivity-obsessed society, we often loathe burnout more for keeping us from getting from A to B than for how it's impacting us physically or mentally. This article will encourage you as a creative writer to maintain precision focus—the ability to sit still and work on the same task (i.e., your manuscript) for at least 30 minutes without distraction—even when you're experiencing burnout.
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you're seeking isn't craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren't good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can't write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.
Precision Focus in the Context of External vs. Internal Motivation
When we're completing a task that someone else expects of us, we can usually force ourselves to do the work even when we're not feeling our best. We may not have precision focus, but we manage to tick boxes off our to-do lists. This is because external motivators like not being fired are in play.
Meanwhile, in regard to things we do for pleasure, like creative writing, it's easier to give up when we're feeling burned out. This is because all we have to motivate ourselves are internal motivators, like pride in our work, which are not usually tangible in the way that a paycheck, a glowing review, or a standing ovation can be.
Don't get me wrong. Internal motivation, time and again, has proven to be a stronger, longer-lasting source of "get up and go" than external motivation, but every once in a while, our internal motivators need a tune-up. So, let's take a look under the hood.
5 Ways to Boost Internal Motivation and Maintain Precision Focus
#1: Just Say No! (to Multitasking.)
Multitasking is the best way I know of to get off task. According to the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, it takes "an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds" to regain focus after interrupting your original task. Sure, you may feel like you're doing twice as much in the same amount of time, but let's stop kidding ourselves. Multitasking just makes us feel more manic.
Before you sit down to write, turn your phone off, pause your inbox (courtesy of browser extensions like Boomerang), and block your social media. Focus on the task at hand and on performing it to the best of your abilities.
#2: Find the Reason Why You Write.
It's a bonus point if pursuing your goals benefits you personally. Even though intrinsic motivation isn't as tangible or as easily measured as extrinsic motivation, it's what keeps us going for the long haul. When you were a kid, it was what helped you enjoy your soccer game even when your mom wasn't there to cheer you on.
If you're a writer, then you know that the days when you have a soccer mom on the sidelines are few and far between. Instead of saying, "I should write because I should write," which is tautological and silly, dig deep and journal about what it means to you that you get to be a writer.
Forget the daily struggle of writing life and focus on the fact that you take meaningless symbols and arrange them on a page to create art, meaning, entertainment. You are a writer; you write books. Isn't it awesome that you are?
#3: Create and/or Stick to a Routine.
Laser focus is not something we're born with, and it’s not an unlimited resource. With that in mind, if you're sweating the small stuff you should already have down pat—like when you'll wake up, what you'll eat for breakfast, what you'll wear—then you're expending focus and energy that could better serve more important tasks. It takes practice, but it behooves you to have a routine.
Make use of a planner to build yours out, whether a fancy bullet journal, a corporate one from Staples, or the calendar app on your phone. If and when possible, wake up at the same time every day. Lay out your clothes the night before. Plan your meals and your workouts. Go forth and conquer.
#4: Be Adaptable in Your Routine, Though.
Sometimes, life gets hectic. Maybe your schedule changes and you don't have the leisure time you hoped to use to write. Maybe your child signs up for a recreational sports league, and now your leisurely Saturday mornings with coffee and your manuscript are shot. (Side note: If you have a kid, in a sports league or not, and you have an entire Saturday to yourself, we all want to know your secret.)
If your routine is similarly thrown for a loop, take a beat and then try to adapt. In other words, give yourself a moment up front to admit how much this hit to your schedule stinks. You're not being selfish here; you had a good thing going and it's been taken away, at least for the time being. Once you've taken your moment, refocus your energy on how you'll fight to reclaim your writing time.
What other areas of your weekly (or monthly) schedule are flexible? Who can you delegate responsibilities to—in the kid example, perhaps a partner or child minder—so that you have more time to focus on things that are important to you? Even if one part of your schedule has become inflexible, I guarantee that you can find a more forgiving window of time if you adapt to your new normal and are willing to think outside the box.
#5: Fake It Till You Make It.
You may not feel motivated at first, you may feel pretty burned out and brain-fried, but if you have the energy to do so, get your bum in your writing seat at the same time every day. Routine is key because it sets your brain on autopilot. Before you know it, you won't have to overcome the inertia of opening up that Scrivener file. It'll be second nature.
(This post is excerpted from a piece originally titled "8 Ways to Maintain Precision Focus When You're Burned Out and Brainfried" on Hatch-Books.com.)