Every writer knows focus is the name of the game.
Some writers need absolute quiet and privacy. Others kick out the jams and let ‘er rip almost anywhere. You might need an entire day to write a few pages, while someone else pumps out 10,000 words in the same amount of time. Either way, you’re on task.
But worry, fear, and new tasks or responsibilities can shred anyone’s focus.
I’m talking about the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation. By now, you know all about washing your hands, staying home, and monitoring social distance when you absolutely must go out, so I won’t get into all that. I’m here to talk about writing.
Everyone has a different situation.
For me, not much has changed since I work from home anyway and don’t have kids. The only big difference is socializing in person: no friends, no family, no local writers group, no library, no coffee shop. But I’m logging lots of miles on my bike!
You’re probably dealing with changes that I can only imagine.
No matter what they are, the changes could be interfering with your ability or even desire to write. Me, I’ve been spending way too much time on Facebook and reading the news online, but I’ve had enough. I’m determined to stop it. I’ve dealt with serious, even heart-wrenching distractions before, so this situation isn’t that different.
How to focus when the world suddenly changes.
I’m assuming you’re a creative or non-fiction writer at any stage of the game. You might also be an employee working remotely. Whatever you do, the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated changes have created challenges for you and your ability to focus—and write.
1. Identify your distractions.
If you know what your distractions are, you can modify or eliminate them.
Worry, stress, or extra responsibilities and tasks are tops right now for most people.
- Make a list of everything that requires your time and attention
- Create two columns: “unnecessary” and “necessary”
“Unnecessary” for me includes worry-driven, compulsive online news reading and way too much time spent on social media. Not only am I wasting time, I’m allowing myself to get bombarded with bad news constantly. My head fills up with everything I’ve read and the discussions I’ve had with friends, and writing feels like digging a tunnel through a mountain of words and voices
On the other hand, some of my recent “necessary” extra activities have included researching homemade masks, making DIY hand sanitizer, and preparing healthy meals with items on hand rather than heading to the grocery store. This stuff stays, though I shouldn’t fuss over them too much.
2. Decide what’s in your control and what’s not.
Almost everything in your “necessary” and “unnecessary” lists are under your control, at least to some extent
- Stop unnecessary activities or cut down on them.
I’m limiting social media now and news reading, for example. I have no need to read every little thing, right? Keep up with facts—yes. Check in with friends on Facebook—yes. Take part in big discussions? No (or maybe only on weekends).
What about you? Do you really need to bake cookies? Reorganize your entire house or apartment? Clean out the garage?
- Fill in the blank for each specific situation. “I really do/don’t need to ________.
Understand that some seemingly unnecessary things are important for mental and emotional health right now. Socializing online, phone chats, and a daily walk, run, bike ride, or getting some fresh air are essential. The same goes for watching a movie or TV show and listening to music. Just don’t over-do it.
- Be easy on yourself, but don’t sleep late and watch TV all day, every day.
- Find balance. Self-care is more important now than ever.
- Remember that self-care also means doing what you love and want to do: write.
3. Evaluate your list and eliminate or reduce “unnecessaries” to make more time for writing.
Even with necessary tasks, you have some control depending on what they are.
Schools closed means kids are at home. You can’t change that, but you can make the best of it. Try searching online with keywords like “how to keep kids busy during covid19 stay at home.” That brings up some good articles, like this one. And here’s an article geared toward working from home with kids.
Preparing meals instead of eating out might be another task that’s sucking up your time. You can’t change this one, either, unless you have some good delivery or take-out options, but you can find ways to cut down on time.
Situations like being sick (even with just a cold) or 24/7 care of a sick family member can feel out of your control and, in some ways, they are. But writing when you have a few minutes here or there might help you find your focus, de-stress, and maintain sanity (more on that below).
4. How to focus with a schedule
Experts agree that sticking to a schedule when working at home is essential. This article is written for remote employees, but it’s true for freelancers and entrepreneurs as well as creative writers.
Plan your workdays. Wake up at a regular time and get ready for work, no matter what kind of work that is. Take a break, work some more, have lunch. The same goes for the afternoon, although the details depend on your situation.
No matter what your responsibilities are, if you want to be a productive writer, maintain a schedule like these 20 writers. It’s more important than ever right now.
5. If you have 15 minutes, you can devote that time to writing.
With a long list of “necessaries,” you might think you have no time to write. It might even feel impossible, but you can always squeeze in a few minutes.
All you need is something to write with. Spend some time over morning coffee or before bedtime, or take a break between tasks to record your thoughts. It can be about anything that comes to mind: the day’s events, how you feel about the pandemic situation, the politics involved, or what you’re worried about. Memories, plans, dreams, what the dog did or that annoying person at the grocery store.
If you have more than 15 minutes, schedule a half-hour or an hour and stick with it. But if 15 minutes is all you can count on, stick with that, and when you get extra time, take advantage of it.
Expressing your feelings through writing can be therapeutic and help you learn how to focus.
It doesn’t have to be worthy of publication. Just write. Keep paper and pen, your tablet, notebook, or other device nearby and write. Your feelings and thoughts are valuable, and you never know when you might come back to them and be inspired.
I feel so angry and so sad and I don’t even know why. I’m snapping at the kids and everyone and what am I supposed to do? This is so hard. But really, how hard is it to stay home? I’ve dreamed of having more time at home, so why am I so upset? Nervous. Anxious. Terrified. Like a bomb is going to drop. Maybe I just never thought this would happen, it’s just so unreal. Surreal. Crazy. Maybe I should go for a walk and get out of here for a while.
If your feelings involve other people, describe them in detail—they might become a character in a novel or short story later on. Who knows? Writing about seemingly trivial matters might provide insight into yourself, your job, or a non-fiction piece you’re working on.
If something in the news is upsetting, imagine the people involved as fictional characters. Look at photos in news media. Write about them.
You can carve out time for writing; that in itself will help you learn how to focus. Schedule it. Use it. Guard it and insist on no interruptions. Decide when you’re going to write and for how long and do it. Five, four, three, two, one, go!
What will make you feel satisfied with yourself?
This is the big question. The most important question.
At the end of the day, do you want to feel good and proud of yourself for getting some writing done?
Or would you rather be continually frustrated and disappointed?
Learn how to focus no matter what’s going on in your life or the world. Other writers—successful writers—never stop writing. What about you?
The decision is yours.
P.S. Don’t forget to wash your hands.