I was delighted to hear this wonderful researcher of attention, Gloria Mark (UC, Irvine), being interview by Ezra Klein on his NY Times podcast recently. If you are feeling frazzled and having trouble focusing on your book, please give this a listen. I’m often coaching writers about how to take better care of their brains, particularly their attentional systems. So much of the advice I offer in sessions is echoed in her research on cultivating the ability to pay attention to what you really want to focus on. And faculty life is designed to make that difficult. Here’s a quick list of steps I encourage my clients to make:
—Write in fairly brief but regular sessions. Brief may mean half an hour to an hour and a half. And do this 3-6 times a week, depending on your workload of teaching and other tasks.
—If, like most of us, you have less time to write than you would like, give it the time in your day when your mind works best. For most of us that’s first thing in the day.
—If you notice after you’ve been working a while in a writing session that the wheels of your mind are starting to grind slowly—almost painfully—stop the session. Shift to doing something else, particularly something away from screens, for at least fifteen minutes.
—Do not check email or social media before your first writing (or researching / crunching data / editing) session of the day.
—Take brief breaks several times a day. And it’s vital that those breaks revolve around doing something physical or social—writing email is not a helpful break for your brain from writing your book! Go for more mindless activities that let your attention wander.
This resting of your brain’s attentional system is essential to support the time when you must really focus. Here are some examples of breaks that truly refresh your mind: taking a walk, chatting with friends, enjoying a snack or meal. Since I work at home, I love to hit pause in my focused work and fold the laundry or straighten the kitchen or play with my dogs for 10 minutes.
Finally, the people I work with who follow these steps tell me that they feel the quality of their thinking about their book or article improves.