6 Keys to Keeping Focus

The book
Dave Heuts / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

One of the keys to being a writer is the ability to write, no matter what else is going on.

That may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how easy it is to get pulled off-course by the absolute mundane.

  • A friend wants to meet for lunch? Oops, there goes two hours.
  • You need to check what the weather is going to be like later today so you turn on the morning news? Oops, there goes two hours.
  • Your kid (or spouse, parent, roommate, whoever) needs something from you at the last minute that seems completely reasonable? Oops, there goes two hours… or maybe a whole day.

It doesn’t matter if a writer is “just” a writer, or bi-vocational, or working the day job until the writing can support them, the need for focus remains the same. You aren’t actually a writer unless you are writing. And you don’t write when you allow everything else to take precedence over your writing.

So how do you fix it? It’s easier than you might think and harder than you can imagine.

Make It Your Job

This is the biggie – everything else is a part of this one. If you want to support yourself as a writer – or even if it’s more about the accomplishment than the income – you have to treat writing like you would any other job.

  • Know what your goals are.
  • Keep a schedule.
  • Improve your skills.
  • Give yourself deadlines.
  • Reward success.

I actually have a binder labeled This Is My Job: Plans, projects, tasks, and goals. Inside this binder I keep notes about writing related projects I need to work on (including this website), training I need to get, platforms I want to publish on, and things I need to research – like how being self-published will work at tax time. There’s all kinds of stuff in there.

Note though, this is NOT the place where I keep notes for specific writing projects – character sheets, plot cards, and other project related materials get stored separately. It’s more a place where I have worked out (am working out) my job description for what being a writer looks like for me and what it entails. It’s my office manager that can assign me a task when I’m not sure what I need to be doing. It’s my business plan that can help me keep my focus when I feel like I’m losing my way a bit.

Know What Your Goals Are

This goes hand-in-hand with making writing your job. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably never get there.

What does being a writer look like to you? You have to know or you will miss it when you arrive. Do you want to get short stories into magazines? Do you want to self-publish eBooks? Do you want to sell a novel to a big-time publishing house?

Just remember that the best goals are things that you can control. If I set a goal of self-publishing a novel before the end of 2014, the outcome of that goal lies with me. If, on the other hand, I set a goal to hit the New York Times bestsellers list, I haven’t really set a goal at all. There’s virtually nothing I can do to control the outcome. The best goals are achievable. They are challenging. They are within your control. And they can be modified without being broken.

Keep a Schedule

Know when you are going to write. It doesn’t really matter if your best writing time is at 5:00AM (ugh!) or 11:30PM or during your lunch break or from 10 ’til 2 every Saturday. What is important is that you figure out when you can set aside time to write, and then you use that time to write. Make it sacrosanct and don’t allow anything to interrupt it. Well, almost nothing. If the house is burning down or someone is bleeding that takes precedence. Obviously.

Once in a while it’s OK to take a day off or rearrange your schedule to accommodate other activities. Real LifeTM doesn’t always happen on a schedule. But if you find that you’re putting your writing time aside more often than you’re putting time aside to write, you need to reevaluate your priorities.

Improve Your Skills

Practice makes perfect. It’s a truism that won’t go away. You have to practice your craft if you want to improve.

Photographers will tell you that they take hundreds of pictures in order to get a handful that are really worthwhile. Fortunately, the ratio for writing is not quite so high. But you do have to write a lot, and probably edit even more, in order to have a final product you’re genuinely proud of. Keep practicing and you will inevitably improve.

Also in the improvement category is to keep learning and stay teachable. Don’t hesitate to take a class, read a book, or join a writer’s group to help take your writing up another notch. Nobody knows it all. And no matter how well you string words together, there is always more you can do to make it better. If you’re serious about having a writing career, keep on doing the more.

Give Yourself Deadlines

In some ways this is a subset of having goals, but broken down in a more specific way. My goal might be to publish a novel before the end of 2014. Deadlines help define the pieces that will get you to your goal. Break your goal down into the minimum daily or weekly tasks needed to hit your target and use that to set deadlines.  If your goal is to build a house, you will have deadlines for laying the foundation, constructing the framing, putting on a roof, roughing in the plumbing and electric, etc.

The same is true for writing – you need to understand the pieces that will go into publishing your story and the order in which they need to happen. Then you can create meaningful deadlines that will help keep you on track.

So… “I’m planning to publish an anthology of short stories,” becomes, “I’m writing five 500 word flash fiction stories. I’ll finish one a week, edit the collection in 2 weeks, design a cover, and submit to Amazon by the end of next month.” Be as specific as you can. If you’re wishy washy in your goal setting, you will be wishy washy in your completion.

Ask me how I know. 🙄

Reward Success

In the best companies, employees feel valued because their efforts are acknowledged. As a writer, it’s important to remember that you’re both the CEO and the mailroom clerk. If anyone is going to acknowledge your efforts, it is going to be you. So plan rewards for yourself when you make certain achievements or hit specific goals or deadlines. It can be as small as making a batch of cookies after you hit your 2000 words for the day. It can be as grand as planning a weekend away after completing the editing on your 100,000 word masterpiece. But whatever it is, make it both meaningful to you, and contingent on doing what you told yourself you would do.

And here’s a freebie for anyone who isn’t trying to be a writer. These keys work for other things too. Whether you’re training for a marathon, tapping into your creativity in new ways, or looking to improve your position at your “other” job, being systematic about keeping your focus will help you achieve more than you thought possible.

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