Why Your Lack of Focus Is A Good Thing

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Kit MacConnell of Goggles & Lace.

It’s a problem many of us suffer through on a day-to-day basis: lack of focus. We let it ruin that pretty, little block of scheduled writing time we so neatly outlined in shiny colors on our calendar. We glare at that shiny-colored block until something shinier catches our attention, and that cute little block of writing time gets thrown haphazardly–out the car window–as we go speeding off to the beach.

When we return home, we look at that neat little block of writing time (that did not literally get thrown out the car window, because honestly, that shiny box was conveniently forgotten in favor of sun and sand), and think, “Oh, my gosh, I completely forgot about writing!” Sometimes we might even make the Home Alone-kid-face to convince ourselves we’re being sincere about forgetting to write.

But you did not forget. You knew very well what you were doing. You give it all kinds of names. You hide it behind the guise of “writer’s block,” “procrastination,” “creative ADD,” “lack of time,” or “lack of talent.” You even tell people, when they ask (or when they don’t), that you are making so much progress with your writing. So much progress that your notebooks are filled with scribbled down notes and ideas–but no actual content.

The super-secret root of your problem is this: you’re scatterbrained.

You’re scatterbrained and your writing is suffering.

But your writing doesn’t have to suffer.

No matter which way you slice it, though, being scatterbrained will destroy your writing only if you let it. Think of it this way: as a writer, you have a whole mess of tools at your disposal, but your tools are all piled into a single crate in your garage. Usually, you’re hunting for a screwdriver in that crate only to find you’ve pulled out a hairbrush. (“How did that get in there?” you cry.)

It’s clear that you need to organize your writing tools.

Why Your Lack of Focus Is A Good Thing

Being scatterbrained isn’t a bad thing. A lot of the time, it just means you have too much in your head to reasonably sort through at that particular moment. It means you’re creative. I’ve never met a single scatterbrained person who wasn’t creative. All you have to do is harness that ridiculous need to drop everything and chase the idea that pops into your head–whether it’s a sparkly new idea for a high fantasy novel, or an overwhelming urge to scamper off to the mall to compare different types of spiffy, neck pillows for your cozy late-night writing binges.

How to Tell If You’re “Scatterbrained”

Not sure if you’re scatterbrained?

  • Do you spend endless hours writing down ideas for amazing stories, but never seem to flesh any of these ideas out?
  • Do you waste time on name lists, sites like Model Mayhem, or
    “character creation” generators?
  • Do you forget what color your main character’s eyes are? Forget how you decided to spell his name halfway through chapter 6? Suddenly realize your red herring doesn’t actually lead your readers away from the correct conclusion?
  • Did you start writing, remember you have a family to feed, start dinner, and then realize that adult swim was much more important than whatever it was you were doing?

It’s okay. Really. You’re brilliant, you’re just managing you writing tools ineffectively.

Finding A System That Works With Your Lack of Focus

Some writers have trouble being organized. Some writers will tell you that they are organized, but I can guarantee that it’s only because they’ve worked at it and finally found a system that works for them. Don’t get jealous that their system is effective and yours isn’t.

Don’t worry. We’re going to find your system, so take a deep breath. Here we go.

1. Make outlines

Do you hate outlines? Have you ever tried one?

An outline is a fantastic way to keep your thoughts straight when they’re threatening to run away with you. They don’t have to ruin the “organic writing” process. Outlines can be edited and altered as many times as it tickles your fancy, and those little plot points will do wonders for getting from A to B in your story. Would you drive from Boston to Albuquerque without a road map? Unlikely.

2. Carry a notebook with you

Carry a small notebook for on-the-run ideas. I know, everyone gives this as advice, but it hasn’t failed me yet. I always manage to get a brilliant idea when I don’t have a notebook, so it’s best to carry one no matter what. Even the cute little ones that fit in your back pocket.

3. Get a desk calendar

One of those big ones you see on teachers’ desks. They’re reasonably priced, and those shiny blocks of scheduled writing time I mentioned previously really stand out when outlined in highlighter. Jot down the time you allotted to write, when you will sketch characters and settings, and even when you will outline your novel.

4. Meditate and schedule some “down time”

That desk calendar I mentioned? Pencil in some meditation time on there. (Or downtime of your choice.) Meditation is a fantastic way to help clear your head of all that clutter, breathe deeply, and let go of everything that’s got you wound up. If you prefer gardening, or jogging, or eating three pints of ice cream and watching Tyra, then that’s cool, too.

5. Wear comfy clothes

Two words: comfy clothes. Who wants to write in the clothes you wore while you worked all day? Button-down business shirt, or cozy sweater? Jeans, or Batman pajama bottoms? Leather-soled dress shoes, or fuzzy, brightly colored socks? You do the math.

What I’m getting at is this: in order to accommodate your naturally scatterbrained creative mind you need get organized and bring the pressures of life down a notch.

Your writing (and your sanity) will thank you.

Kit MacConnell is a twenty-something girl with big dreams and an overactive imagination, bent on cranking out as much fiction as she can. (It really gets crowded in her brain with so many characters clamoring for attention.) In addition to her aspiration to publish her first novel, she writes random flash fiction pieces for Goggles & Lace, her blog, and rounds out her week with writing exercises and installments for the weekly series Letters from Blackford Hill.

Are you amongst the fantastic, scatterbrained masses? What do you do to keep yourself focused and on track? How do you wind yourself down enough to make progress on your writing?

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25 comments on “Why Your Lack of Focus Is A Good Thing

  1. Ollin says:

    Great tips here, Kit!

    Interesting note about wearing comfy clothes. Usually I like to dress up a bit to write, makes me feel important and like what I am doing is work. But I guess different things work for different people.

    I totally do all the rest though. But I do need to get a desk calendar, stat.

    Thank you so much for guesting today!

    • Dressing up is something I never would have thought of. But I suppose you’re right. Writing is serious work, and I see how it would help to treat it that way. =] Thanks for the input!

      And also thanks for having me. ^_^

  2. Some very good notions here. You are delivering good ideas and being entertaining at the same time. The sign of a true writer.

    I agree about the “scatterbrained” personality, it does bombard one with ideas, clips, notes, snatches of conversation, bits of plot, titles, descriptions, and it never seems to stop. Personally, I trust it never will.

    While we use the world around us to feed our idea machine, though, I wonder if we don’t sometimes go overboard with the distractions we subscribe to (e.g., not those that come unbidden). Some of us play music while we write. I find it amazing how we say “it helps me think”, or it “sets the mood”, or… well, whatever.

    I have found that playing music with a catchy beat, or worse also with lyrics in a language I understand, is by far more distracting than supportive. I follow along. I get lost in tunes I know inside-out, I start to tap my feet, type to the beat, sing along. The problem is, that isn’t writing, it’s accompanyment.

    There is so much to learn about this wondrous craft of ours… but even that cannot be allowed to interfere with the actual writing.

    • I know exactly where you’re coming from, Richard. Music is the same for me. I listen before I write, sometimes to set the tone, but I can’t have it while I’m writing.

      On the contrary, though, it’s easy to be one of those writers demanding silence to write. I was there for a few years when I finally realized that silence was a complete impossibility due to my living conditions, and I had to embrace the background ruckus. I can’t imagine what parent-writers have to go through!

      Thanks for the comment! =]

  3. Kaleba says:

    Oh if only I could find a way to get focused! Yes, definitely one of the scatterbrained.

    One thing I found that helps, if I could only stick to it, is a routine. Writing time is scheduled in, and because it’s routine, I do it. But then I find there are other, “more important”, things to do: like mowing the lawn and watering the garden before the heat of the day sets in, or shoveling the snow before the 9am city-imposed deadline, or getting someplace I just have to be, even though it could wait.

    I’ve tried to adjust my schedule so I get my writing done before I walk the dog, or mow, or shovel, or water, but I’m such a night owl type that it’s hard for me to get up early. I write best first thing in the morning, which complicates things. One of these days I’ll figure it out. In the meantime I’ll keep trying.

    Great post and I appreciate the suggestions. I really need to try the meditation thing. Maybe that’ll help me focus later in the day on those days that I have to mow/water or shovel or whatever first thing in the morning.

    • I’m also a night owl type, and it’s a very difficult sleeping routine to pull yourself out of. I wish I could offer some advice on how to get out of it, but as things stand now, I’m still trapped with my 4am bedtime.

      I suppose you could always go to bed late, wake up early for writing, and then reward yourself with a nap when you’re through. =P

  4. Ana says:

    I can so relate to this, Kit! I’m working on getting the daily home routines down so I can make a writing schedule. I’m good at starting posts or projects, but getting them finished is something else.

    Best wishes to you!

    • Understandable! My dirty little secret: I didn’t finish my first large-scale project until I participated in NaNoWriMo 2008. “Finishing” is a big a deal, and sometimes it just takes a bit of extra scheduling, resolve, and self-empowering to get there. But you can do it! Also, it’s much easier to SEE the end of a project, and get there, when you map out where you’re going next.

      *Outline advocate.*

      Thanks for posting! =]

  5. Conor Ebbs says:

    Hey Kit,

    Thank you for the (always) timely advice. 🙂

    I have such notebooks, overflowing with half-nothings that could be half-way to something. I really need to take time to go through them, pick the best, and burn the rest.

    Actually, I’ll do that, ahem, tomorrow. 😉


    • Don’t burn the rest! D= Those notebooks of half-nothings! I HAVE ONE (five… actually… shh)! Oh, it’s come in SUCH handy when I have plot points that aren’t working, characters who need a little extra something, settings that are lacking…. Those scattered ideas may not be something on their own, but if you keep that notebook, you could find that one character’s traits will blend fantastically with a character who’s lying a little flat. Or that tidbit of dialog that you thought was brilliant, but had no place for it, fits so well in the conversation involving So-and-So.

      Never discount your ideas. They may not seem like much at first, but you might find they’re just the building block you need to bring your stories to the next level.

      Don’t give up on them! =P

      • Conor Ebbs says:

        Mine are mostly half-written poems, but you’re probably right, I should keep them. I can beat your five. :/

        Thank you for a very refreshing article. 🙂

  6. […] My fantastic blog-friend Ollin Morales has invited me to guest post over on his blog, Courage 2 Create!  I won’t spoil it.  So head on over, and let me tell you Why Your Lack of Focus is a Good Thing! […]

  7. Amy Buchheit says:

    So funny to see this post on the same week I wrote my blog post on “The Art of Prioritizing”! LOL!

    This is so great. I see myself (or myself of the recent past) in parts of this blog as I have now taken on doing more writing in various forms. The main part where I recognized myself was the part about hating outlines. I most certainly DID hate outlines, as it reminded me of being forced to do so all through school. But then, I started developing workshops this year and found them to be CRITICAL. Blogs? I can still free-wheel it (though if I’m doing a series, I must at *least* figure out what the topics for each week will be). But more formal or larger projects? Outlining is a must.

    Someone talked about music. I think that with visual art music can be useful/help you lose yourself in the piece and open up to the creative flow. Of course, it helps if you have a really strong technical foundation already and the basic idea of the work in place. There is something about listening THROUGH the music that focuses me while painting. And yes, occasionally I get swept away by the music but that is good – I need the break. Otherwise, I can paint for 8 hours straight and forget to eat, use the restroom, etc.

    Thank you for being engaging and honest in writing this post. It was interesting and fun! 🙂

    • Outlines and I have a very “love/hate” thing going on. They make me feel like an adult, and I haven’t quite accepted that part of myself, yet. =P But you’re right, they’re absolutely necessary in creating structure across the whole of a larger project.

      I can see the use for music in visual art, but in writing it makes it so incredibly hard to focus. Haha. I have the same problem that Richard has in his comment above. I sing and zone out and tap my pen… and usually get lost browsing iTunes for hours. =P

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Andrea Lewis says:

    This is an excellent post and it’s impeccable timing. I have been doing these things all along but I suddenly lost complete focus. Maybe it’s the summer-like temperatures but I want to be outside more and walk. I wear PJ’s or yoga outfits when I do write. I used to have a schedule, but that seems to have gone out the window.

    • It’s SO easy to get side tracked by the change in weather. About twenty minutes after the first snow every year, I tend to sink into complete and utter lethargy. And, like you, when the warm weather comes, I just want to be out in it. Largely, I think, we have to treat it as a ‘mind over matter’ scenario. We may not be able to control the weather, but if we put our minds to it, we can control our productivity when a sunny day is trying to drag us from our writing stations.

      Oh, and yoga pants? Best clothing invention ever. ❤

  9. I really needed this post today. It’s nice to receive validation that I am not in fact, completely insane. Or, if I am insane, I am not alone! One thing that really helps me focus is using the pomodoro technique (working in 25-minute increments). You can read more about it and download a timer at : http://www.focusboosterapp.com/. I have an awful tendency to constantly check my email/facebook/twitter, etc during writing time, so I’ve found if I close all my browser tabs and set the timer, I can get quite a bit done in just a few sessions. Now I just need more consistency!


    • Oooh, I’m not familiar with that, but I’m definitely going to check it out. NaNoWriMo 2008 introduced me to Write or Die http://writeordie.com/ but I’ve only used it during NaNoWriMo. It’s kind of an obnoxious way to keep yourself writing.

      I’m the same way with email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. And I don’t have the willpower to disable my WiFi, so I try to power through it (and often reward myself with candy when I succeed).

      Not only are you insane and in good company, but “Crazy” is a good thing. =P It makes you interesting. Now, if only there was a “Crazy Writers Mixer” every now and again….

  10. Dear Kit,

    Thanks for distilling all that chaos into basic steps and for reframing scatterbrain into brilliant creativity! Love the comfy clothes part. I have this vision of wrestling an alligator in a swamp when I’m tackling some of my writing projects amidst all the distractions and other life obligations~so comfy clothes are a must 🙂 I will keep your tips in mind as I attempt to “wind it down a notch” and get a focus.

    Thanks Kit and Ollin for a great post!

    • Now I’m going to have that image in my head every time I’m struggling with a writing project. Haha. I wouldn’t advise alligator-wrestling in your Sunday best. =P Good luck in your writing, and thanks for posting!

  11. Thank you Kit! It’s so nice to hear your voice come through in your writing again. I’ve missed you girl!

  12. Great post! I just posted one today about inspiration. Not so similar and yet slightly similar. I just published my first book in April and people are getting on my about the second one and my brain is just like, “AAAAHHHH”. I’m not sure how I got through the first book without a single ounce of prioritizing but I did. I’m not so sure the second will happen that way but I have no idea what would even begin to work for me. I guess I have to try some things out. My one biggest problem is the internet….and people, if I’m not surfing the web I’m caught up talking to people….I think I need to cut my LAN line but, then, I think everyone else in my house wouldn’t be so happy about that!

    • Congrats on publishing your first book! As far as the internet goes, I completely understand. If I don’t have the willpower to shut off my WiFi, I usually put up status messages that discourage others from chatting with me. “I’m working. Shhh.” or some variant thereof. It doesn’t usually work so well at first, but people, over time, started getting the message. =] (Believe me, TweetDeck is ruining my life right now…. LOL.) Anyone who knows me on Facebook knows what a struggle I have in staying on track. But if you make it known you’re working, I’m sure you’ll get a bit more peace!

      Thanks for commenting, and congrats again! =]

  13. Elise says:

    Kit, I really enjoyed your post. Thank you! I struggle back and forth between those “important tasks” getting in the way of my scheduled writing time, and I have to seriously ask myself, if I’m willing to accept the consequences of those tasks going undone. Can I live with a house that’s unvaccumed for another day? Can I make a quick dinner that’s not so time intensive? If I can answers “yes” to those (and I usually can if I ask the question), then I feel free to buckle down and write. 🙂

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