How to focus when you write

One of my goals in 2014 is to write more concise and poignant copy. As Robert Peter Clark says, short prose has 3 key elements: focus, wit and polish.

Focus – the unifying theme
Wit – the governing intelligence
Polish – the sparkle that comes from careful word choice and revision

A lack of focus can make your writing sloppy, inconsistent and often unnecessarily contradictory.  I’ve noticed in just the emails that I’ve written lately that I find myself thinking one thing and writing something else.  For instance, I recently sent an email to the CEO of our company saying that “I can’t handle something” followed by “I got it handled”.

I am making these careless errors because of a lack of focus.  I find myself getting distracted and my mind bounces from one thing to another.  Do you ever feel like your thoughts are drifting between emails, instant messages, Evernote, your web browser and calendar reminders?  On top of that are phone calls, text messages and interruptions from people.  Letting your mind get knocked around by the incoming waves will drown your productivity.  Here are three things I’ve started doing lately to help me focus.

Only do one thing at a time:  I wrote about the myths of multitasking in a previous post.  But even though I know you can’t do more than one thing at a time effectively, I still find myself struggling with this in practice.  When you write, try to have only one app within view on your desktop.  I use multiple virtual desktops on my Macbook Pro. I found that with my 27″ high-res monitor, the downside is being able to put lots of windows on one screen.  So when I am writing, I make sure only my writing app is in that desktop.

virtual desktops

When I am writing an email requiring more than just a few sentences, I will double click it to get it out of the Mail app framework and move it to its own virtual desktop.  To access the virtual desktops you must launch Mission Control.  You can hit the expose key on your keyboard (see below) or my favorite way is using the 4-finger upward gesture on my Trackpad.
Apple Expose Key

Creating a writing space:  You need a place that puts you in a productive and creative mood.  This isn’t always possible.  Sometimes we must be productive on the road, in airplanes or in a noisy or crowded public place.  But when possible optimize your effectiveness by creating a private writing place.  I have an office in my house with a door I can close that is quiet.

While in Key West we visited Ernest Hemingway’s house.  Hemingway had a detached study that is apart and away from his main house.  While guests and family are carousing in the main house, Hemingway had a place he could go and read, write and think.

Hemingway's Study

Use ambient environment apps:  The virtual desktops are great and so is quiet or peaceful place.  But there are apps available to create your own virtual ambient environment. I use the private writing place app called Ommwriter.  Ommwriter takes over your desktop, blocking visibility to all your other apps.  It also allows you to chose from various backgrounds and ambient sound tracks to keep you focused on your writing.

When the sound of silence becomes defening or tedious, I like to listen to ambient music or a sound generator app.  I find that music with a heavy or complex beat wrecks my concentration, but listening to a yoga station on Pandora or Spotify works well.  One of my personal favorites is music for programming, a series of mixes intended to aid concentration and increase productivity.  If you like the sound of a busy coffee shop to help put you in a productive mood, try Coffitivity.  Not my thing but it may be useful for java jocks.