Shifting Focus: a Critical Writer’s Skill

When driving a car, you need to focus on the distance so you don’t run a red light that is coming up or miss your exit sign. But you also have to focus up close, paying attention to your speedometer or the car in the next lane. You won’t successfully reach your destination if you don’t have both long-range focus and short-range focus.

The same holds true for your writing career, and this shifting back and forth in focus seems to be where writers often fall short.

Long-Term Focus

LONG-TERM FOCUS: bypassing instant gratification in favor of achieving your goal.

Long-term focus means taking the long view, like seeing the exit sign in the distance. It marks where you’re headed, and it keeps you on target whether you have to change lanes, stop for gas, speed up or slow down.

Long-term focus for your writing does the same thing. If your long-range goal is publishing a book, that’s where you need to keep your long-range focus. It will keep you moving in the right direction whether you have to stop for illness, speed up to meet a request from an agent, or slow down to do extensive revisions.

“Focus helps you eliminate the mental clutter that keeps getting in the way of your ultimate goals. To remain focused, you need to take time out each and every day to make sure you’re still focused on the things in life that are important to you.” (Self-Discipline: Unlock the Power of Self-Control by M. T. Anderson)

Perils of Long-Term Focusing

So when you’re focused on your long-term goals—really keeping them in sight and heading with determination toward them—what’s the problem? It’s one I can fully identify with.

“If you focus in on a single area of your life with laser-focus, all the other areas will begin to suffer,” says Anderson.

Hasn’t this happened to you? Whether through desire to complete a project or necessity (a deadline bearing down on you), haven’t other areas of your life suffered? Mine do. I don’t care much if my house gets dirty—it can be cleaned fairly quickly when I have time. I’m talking about more important stuff that suffers or gets neglected: exercise, taking time to cook healthy meals, going to bed on time, and other health-related things. I might finish 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo, but did I end up with back and neck pain, plus ten extra pounds?

It doesn’t have to be that way, but you must keep a watchful eye on important daily routines. You must learn to shift focus–and usually many times a day.

Short-Term Focus

SHORT-TERM FOCUS: activities that contain all the habits that will get you to your long-term goal (just like your careful driving habits of observing speed laws and filling your gas tank will get you to your destination.)

Short-term focus mostly has to do with your daily writing routines and how you accomplish your daily writing tasks. It also means not letting distractions lure you away from writing or cause you to get lost or off track. 

Most of us know the tips:

  • Find a quiet place to work, preferably one with a door.
  • Close your e-mail and social networking sites while you work.
  • Turn off your cell phone; turn on the answering machine.

You have to focus up close on your driving (writing) habits. The Internet is still a big problem for people. And it might be bigger than you imagine in your own writing life. If you want to find out, check out the time tracking software (FREE) called Rescue Time. It will tell you how you are spending your time online, let you set goals, track for you how you’re doing, and send you a weekly report. It has helped me waste less time after giving me weekly reality checks on where my time is really going!

Also, Anderson says “there are free browser extensions for all of the major browsers that will either block the sites you tell them to or will limit the amount of time you spend on the site. Install one and use it during the hours you’re supposed to be working.”  I use StayFocused for Google Chrome. See these 51 Productivity Extensions for more great ideas to help you.

Slippage

Look at your priorities, then see if you’re really headed that way based on what you’re doing on a daily basis. Focus tends to slip a little at a time. It’s easier to change focus slippage early on while the problem is minor.

If you don’t find a way to have daily short-term focus, it won’t matter if you set long-term goals or not. And vice versa. If you stare at your speedometer without looking down the road, you’ll probably crash. If you stare at the exit sign a mile away without bothering to note the cars behind and beside you, you’ll probably crash. Either way, you won’t make it to your destination.

You are driving your writing career, and it is primarily up to you if you reach your destination. Your writing—like your driving—needs both a long-term view and a short-term view. Taken together, this way to focus on your goals will help many more of them come to completion.

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