Friday, February 3, 2012

Strategies for Focus and Flow

Most people are lucky enough to at least occasionally experience flow, that state in which time seems to disappear and it's just you and the task at hand. Writing, cooking, spreadsheet calculations... almost any task is conducive to flow, except playing Chutes & Ladders with a cheater 5-year-old. I have yet to make that zen.

Kayaks terrify me. But he's cute.
But what do you do when your mind wanders in fifty different directions and you can't even pick a train of thought, let alone focus on it? How do find flow when you're stuck in chaos?

I have a solidly ADD mind. I can't carry on a conversation while driving, I can't sit still through a Star Wars movie, and I always get the wrong answer on Sesame Street's "One of these things is not like the others". You can call it a disorder or you can call it thinking on a different wavelength. Either way, it has made me a collector of coping skills.

Here are the tricks I've used over the years, in writing and in life. None of them have the kick of  Ritalin, but I hope they are useful to more than just my kind of brain:

A comforting ritual
I love coffee. I mean, I luuurve coffee. Caffeine is my best weapon against a lazy mind, but even in my caffeine-free phases I still have to have a cup of decaf. It's a ritual.

I measure out my coffee, two scoops of regular and two scoops of decaf. I wait for it to brew. I add a splash of goat milk (don't ask) and either a pinch of sugar or, if it's a bad day, a scoop of Ghirardelli hot cocoa mix. I sip. I breathe. And then I face the day.

It's a cherub, playing a violin!
When I'm having a tough writing day, the first thing I do is turn on the Vivaldi. As my mind wanders through the labyrinth of prose and plot, it needs some grounding. Bach, Handel, Boccherini... the music of the Baroque period is orderly, mathematical, and precise. It seems to mesmerize the demons of distraction the way spilled rice tames an arithmomanic vampire.

Anything up to early Beethoven can work, but once you get into the Romantic period, fuhgettaboutit.

The kinder, gentler list
This is not just any list. I have my regular to-do list, and then I have my first-aid list.

The first-aid list is about, as my consultant-husband would say, picking the low-hanging fruit. That has always sounded vaguely dirty to me, but apparently it's part of the office vernacular.

This is an emergency method for paralyzing overwhelm. Write down one thing. Sometimes two, but never EVER more than three. Do it, cross it off, write the next one. Repeat. Go for the smallest discrete tasks you can think of.
  • Brush teeth.
  • Shower.
  • Make the coffee.
  • Find my shoes.
  • Write 100 words. Write one more sentence.
Is this method sad and pathetic? Yes. It also works. That's why I'm baring my soul here, folks, as a service to the public. You're welcome.

Grit your teeth for 15 minutes
Flylady says you can do anything for 15 minutes, and she's right. (That's the only part of the Flylady system that ever stuck for me, but it's a good one.) You can do anything for fifteen minutes. Except push-ups...but you can still lie on your stomach, grunting and pressing your hands uselessly against the floor until the timer buzzes.

Fifteen minutes is perfect for household tasks, but I set my writing goals at half an hour, which is usually long enough to find my flow.

Writers who prefer tough love should try Write or Die. Stop writing, and the screeching violin sound will make you wish you'd never tried Write or Die.

Clip your wings
Oh, Internet, what was life before you? Disconnecting is easier said than done, so I found hired help. I started with Freedom, which cuts off all access to the Internet. That was freeing until I fell in love with streaming music through Pandora.

So I moved on to Anti-Social. No Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or any other obvious time-waster that the Anti-Social people can think of. If they haven't already blocked a website for you, just add it yourself. Anti-Social is a great gift to the world; take advantage of it.

You can get around either of these programs by restarting your computer, but you'll have to live with the shame of having rebooted just to check Twitter.

Brain science is fun: More assorted ideas
Everything affects your brain, and your brain affects everything. This makes self-experimentation kind of fun, and I don't just mean what high school kids do with cough syrup.

Rosemary oil is reputed to improve concentration. (See the University of Maryland Medical Center's page on rosemary.) My aromatherapy book says not to use if you are pregnant or epileptic. I found it helpful, so I used to sneak a drop or two onto my desk lamp at work (when I had my own office), and pray no one had a seizure. They didn't. That I know of.

I tried basil oil, too, and while I love pesto, the oil made me nauseous.

Enjoy it now, kid. That gets harder.
I discovered during a yoga phase that a handstand makes me feel more alert, but I didn't know why until I had a child in occupational therapy for sensory integration. The deep pressure against your hands and joints creates proprioceptive input. The short explanation is that it helps your brain self-regulate and find that sweet spot between spacey and wired. If you try this at home, stay next to a wall. And don't sue me.

Writing by hand is a different experience for your brain. I often find when I write by hand, my prose is clumsier but the story comes more easily. If you haven't hand-written more than a page since grade school, then be prepared to cramp. (See this Lifehacker article for more on the handwriting/brain connection.)
Then there's the oldest trick of all: A dash of hope and a heap of determination. Flow is on the other side of a river and I just have to find a way to cross. Sometimes I can wade right to it, but sometimes it's like swimming against a really strong current. Then, all I can do is stretch a rope and hold on tight.*


*Thanks to MaryAnn for planting that image in my head.


  1. Perhaps you and I were twins separated at birth?

    Though I prefer a nice ginger or licorice tea to coffee, and I find myself getting distracted by the conversations between musical instruments when I try to listen to classical music and write at the same time.

    I loved this post! My new goal: To experience "flow" at least once a day.

  2. LOL, Sarah, I'm glad that I was inspiring. :)

    When I was in grad school, I used to make lists of things I had to do before I could go home. It was the only way I could keep myself from procrastinating the day away. There is nothing more satisfying than crossing things off a list. I so need to do that again.

    Oh and I can't carry on a conversation while I drive either.

    Great post!

  3. Oh, I so needed these ideas. And yes, I live by my timer since finding flylady - it's truly amazing what you can accomplish in 15 minute spurts.

  4. I like Anti-Social. What a cool thing. I should pin that on my pintrest boards.

    Great post.

  5. @ Melanie: mmm... licorice tea...

    Great minds think alike, right Sarah? But other than that, our coping mechanisms seem almost entirely opposite:
    -I almost never write while caffeinated. Caffeine is for being excited. If I'm excited, I can't sit still and write.
    -I dislike Baroque music, Handel in particular. There's too much going on, and then I latch onto those sounds instead of writing. Give me formless romanticism - or even better, minimalism - any time.

    Funny how that goes, no? I'll write my focusing post next week; I'm curious to see if we have any other opposites.

  6. @Melanie and Sabrina, that's interesting that you get distracted by Baroque. Sabrina's mention of caffeine, though, seems like a clue to me, because she said it made her too excited. I wonder if (total speculation here) I've been misreading my response to Baroque: perhaps instead of being calming it's actually stimulating.

    ADD is treated with stimulants because the hyperactivity you see in some people is actually a response to a brain that can't seem to find enough stimulation. So for some people, caffeine facilitates calm alertness, rather than being over-exciting.

    True story: I can't do math without singing. Okay, I can, but I'm much more accurate if I'm listening to music with lyrics and singing along. I think it keeps part of my mind occupied so it won't wander and drag the rest of me along. I bet that's what happens with the Baroque music, too, but I've switched parts. Now the language part has something to concentrate on and the math part needs something to keep it in check.

    I think about this stuff A LOT.

  7. Sarah - I didn't know that about ADD! Given all my concentration problems, I had been wondering if I had some form of it. But when the symptoms of your post didn't mesh, I did some research online, and looked at symptoms. Nope, I don't fit any of the more telling symptoms. And that's really fascinating about singing and math. I do listen to music with lyrics at work, but that's more because some of the stuff I do is boring. :)

    So while I'm well aware I have trouble with anxiety, I'm now pretty sure it's not ADD or similar. Just plain anxiety for me. So soothing tea, and nice, repetitive minimalist composers for when I write.

    I don't think about this stuff nearly enough.


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