Gaining Greater Focus

As you’ve probably noticed from my sporadic blog posts, I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. When I’m teaching, I’m teaching. My focus is on the writer in front of me and whatever tools that person needs to become the best writer he can possibly be. When I’m developing curriculum, my only concern is for the struggle that a writer faces and how I can help her ease that pain. When I’m wearing my entrepreneur hat, my presence on LinkedIn and Twitter borders on overbearing.

Statue of intense focus

Intense focus is beneficial not only for a writer but to all of us.

At one time in my life I was a multi-tasker. Now I have a sort of zen-like devotion to the task at hand, for which I am grateful. The ability to focus deeply on the topic at hand is both a strength and a weakness.

It’s the true definition of karma, the marriage of an action with an intention, so that every project, no matter how mundane, becomes a sort of meditation. Even something as simple as vacuuming my home or brushing my dog becomes an opportunity for mind, body, and soul to unite in perfect, if temporary, harmony. And this has made me a better teacher and writer, if not business owner. The challenges that I face as an entrepreneur, I hope to one day overcome by better time management, a more skilled use of technology, and a larger team.

Unfortunately, many of the writers with whom I work have the opposite problem. They’re forced to multi-task, and they rarely have the chance to devote the mental energy required in a single sitting to think through a complex problem or construct a paragraph with the care that an argument or an audience deserves. Likewise, during the revising and editing stages, so many of the managers that I encounter are distracted by the pressures of their day-to-day responsibilities that they cannot easily evaluate the structure of the document as a whole, the flow of the syntax within a section, or the clarity of diction at any particular point.

So for those writers who have to multi-task, here are a few suggestions offered in sympathy for your plight.

Email Inbox1) Ignore your email. While email is an important component of your workday, it’s not the driving force behind your work schedule. It’s easier than you might think to train your co-workers to use email for those matters that require a thoughtful response and to use the telephone for those that require an immediate response.

You should be checking your email no more than 3 times a day. And the first time shouldn’t be first thing in the morning. You dictate your work schedule, not your email. When you sit down in the morning, decide what you’re going to do for the day, and possibly even do the most important thing first, before checking your email. Check again either immediately before or immediately after lunch (but not both) and then an hour before you leave the office for the day.

If you think your colleagues or co-workers may experience some shock with your new schedule, send out an auto-reply that looks something like this:

In order to be more productive, I’m checking my email at the following times: xxxx. You’ll be sure to get a response then. If you have an urgent need, please call xyz at abc. Thanks a bunch, and have a great day!


Clock Face

Work in 45 or 90 minute chunks, depending on the amount of concentration required.

2) Write productively. We work best in chunks of either 45 or 90 minutes. If you’re doing a mundane task like checking for grammatical errors, especially if proofreading is not your strong point, it’s probably best to work for 45 minutes at a time with short breaks to grab a cup of coffee or run downstairs to the printer.

If you’re working on something that requires your complete concentration, like drafting a complex argument, then 90 minutes is a better use of your time. Beware that if you go past the 90-minute limit, you run the risk of tapping yourself out for the day. Just because you’re in the groove doesn’t mean you should keep going.

3) Talk, talk. One of the benefits of working in an office as opposed to working from home is the occasional touch points you have with your colleagues. These spark new ideas and provide a sense of camaraderie that teleworking doesn’t offer.


Cut the distractions with white noise and signal to your co-workers that you’re unavailable for small talk.

They can also be a huge distraction. If you work in a cubicle, you need a source of white noise. Have a big, old-fashioned pair of headphones that fit over your entire ear. The headphones are not an aesthetic choice. They’re a visual cue to let other people know that you don’t want to be bothered. You’re engaged in a task and you’re not available for small talk.

If you’re fortunate enough to have an office with a door, you may want a sign to let people know that you’re working on an important project and you’ll be available after a certain time to answer their questions or deal with their needs.

Experiment with different types of noises to see which work best for you. For some, classical music does the trick because it typically doesn’t include lyrics. That type of noise drives me up a wall. I prefer hard, loud, fast punk rock. Other people enjoy the sounds of nature, and still others use a white noise machine.

Cell Phone4) If it applies to email, it goes double for cell phones. Not only does my cell phone link to my business email account, it also sends me personal email, text messages, Tweets, and Facebook updates. It provides me with incoming calls. And it doesn’t just make sounds. It lights up!

I can turn off some of those distractions some of the time. But when my father is sick, and I’m anxiously awaiting an update, I don’t want to turn off my phone calls. And obsessively checking text messages is one of the ways that I sometimes brainstorm.

Still, there’s a fine balance between managing your cell phone and allowing it to manage you.

All of my messages have a different sound indicator, so when my sounds are on, I know from which email account or social media platform the message is coming. In other words, I know what to pay attention to and what to ignore. (Whether I choose to do so is another matter entirely.)

I also have different sound profiles, so I can turn off all my email, but leave text and telephone on. Or I can turn off all of my incoming messages and just get a vibration for a telephone call.

And I turn my phone over or put it out of sight when I’m concentrating. My voice mail message clearly states that I’m not always available, and as a teacher, I really can’t be reached sometimes.  I don’t see why we can’t set the same parameters around writing.

Of course, there are always the distractions we can’t control. Working from home, I have yet to discover a cure for the “pop-in,” when a friend or relative decides that they can just stop over, because, after all, my husband and I don’t have “real” jobs.

And if any of my readers have suggestions for how I can be a better entrepreneur when my heart and mind are occupied with being a teacher or a curriculum developer, I sure would love to hear them! Thanks so much for your patience with me when I go internet silent. I’m looking forward to a little more interaction with you this week, because communication is key!


  1. Mark Douglas says:

    Writing a new story or editing/revising a manuscript with eclectic music on my iTunes app is just perfect for me. But, I am in my home office with interruption only from email or iPhone, and those I can live with.

    When I used to teach many years ago, developing Technical courses required intense concentration to make sure the subject flowed from point to point. I miss that — somewhat.

    • Mark – a good friend recently sent me some material on the concept of flow, its relation to gaming theory, and the connection of gaming theory to teaching strategies. I’m looking forward to studying those and seeing how to incorporate those into my teaching methodology.
      In the meantime, whether it’s writing or curriculum development, or even answering email, getting into the flow is a state of delightful concentration, a peak point at which our minds are engaged to an extent we find exhilirating and time just seems to evaporate. It’s bliss. I know that I’m addicted, and I hope through my teaching to get other people so high on the writing process that they see it as an escape instead of a chore.

  2. My routine is to assign specific times that are free from everything else to do certain tasks. One hour time units is a good idea. An important aspect of email is, when you get it, do you wish to do anything with it, e.g. respond? If the answer is yes, do it then. If there is not enough time, it is not important enough. Never put it off for later, because otherwise the time you have spent on it leading to that decision is largely wasted, and the basic premise is, we are busy, and short of time. I also have two main tasks that I am prepared to go over the allocated time if I am making significant headway, because they are more important than the rest. Finally, if it is an intellectual puzzle that I am having trouble with, put it to one side, and let it work itself out in the subconscious. Don’t waste time.

    • Ian – thanks for sharing this. I think a lot of us struggle needlessly with email (and other tasks) making them seem bigger and more important than they are. I love how putting something in the inbox for a week puts it in its proper perspective. Quite often, it resolves itself on its own, as you mentioned, without any action required on our part.

  3. Elisabeth Storrs says:

    Wise words, Michelle – especially about email. It’s like being sucked into a vortex if you open it up before you start your main task of the day!

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