The One Skill That Will Actually Help You Get Stuff Done

Creatives are rarely described as Type-A. Creative people are usually described as flaky individuals that are easily distractible. They are project hoppers; they are people who like to follow “shiny-objects,” and they haven’t exactly been known for their ability to focus or follow through. Fortunately/unfortunately, focus is a skill that is in short supply these days. 

The reason for our decline in focus is pretty obvious: technology.

This lack of focus is effecting the productive output of many industries.

Take academia for example. Email, smartphones and the internet have been readily adopted by knowledge workers because they supposedly save time. Now, we can easily organise meetings and projects through the convenient format of email (a prolonged and fractured conversation); colleagues/family/friends are constantly contactable, and we have convenient access to a wealth of (free) knowledge and information.

However, scholarly output has not increased alongside the introduction of these technologies, some argue it has plateaued and others say it has declined

Distractions: Emails, smartphones and unexpected drops ins

One reason why our collective output has suffered is that it is so easy and convenient to contact one another. We all know that it is difficult to get back into a focussed state after being interrupted, but studies show that it’s equally difficult to concentration if we expect to be interrupted. 

Ever noticed how it’s so much easier to get work done when you’re the only one at home or when you go into the office on the weekend?

You may think this is binal — obviously, it’s easier to get things done when no-one else is around — but I think it’s fascinating that our productivity can drop (measurably) simply because we fear potential interruptions. 

These interruptions are not limited to a knock on the door the bing of incoming emails, text messages or notifications are just as disruptive. 

How Long Can We Focus For? 

Our society is structured around the forty-hour workweek. (Note: this is an arbitrary number that was based on machinery during the industrial age and it’s not based on research data. Humans are not machines. Go figure.) And yet, studies show that we can only focus for four or five hours a day. Max. After that, the most you can handle is low-grade task such as admin, email or any other unspecialised task. 

In fact, Sweden is moving towards a thirty-hour work week (6 hour days) after a study showed that productivity remained the same (despite the shorter workday) while workplace drama decreased. 

It typically takes 20 minutes to get into a state of deep concentration. However, the average office worker is interrupted (via email, phone, or a colleague) every 11 minutes. You do the maths. Basically, we’re all struggling to get meaningfully task done. 

The main reason why so many writers do their work early in the morning or late at night is because there’s no one around to interrupt you! 

You can push yourself to remain in a state of deep focus for longer periods of time (8-12 hours), but you must take frequent breaks. Do not work any longer than 90 minutes and make sure that when you do take a break (10-20 minutes), that you’re engaging with tasks that are unrelated to the project you are working on. Go for a walk, talk to a colleague or family member or friend (about something other than work!), read an article in the newspaper (only if it is unrelated to your project) or make a cup of tea and stare out the window.

You can open your email inbox, but only if you are very very disciplined.  

The problem with email is that you may not have enough time in your 10-20 minute break to adequately reply to a request. If you read an email and think, “I’ll reply to that later when I have more time,” and then you return to your work, one part of your mind will still be thinking about how to respond to that email while the other part is trying to focus on your project. It takes at least 20 minutes (approx.) to ‘rid’ your mind of this distraction and to get back to work. 

Simplify to Amplify 

If you want to achieve big things, then you have to say, ‘No, thank you’ to all the requests and opportunities that don’t align with your goals. 

As Marie Forleo says, “You have to simplify to amplify.”

Take a look at your workload and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which tasks do I really have to do?
  • Which of these tasks will really move the needle?
  • Is this task going to lead to my desired result?
  • Is this task actually important, or am I using it as a way to look busy?

Mmmm that last one stings a little bit, doesn’t it?

When you can pinpoint what your priority tasks are, it is way easier to let go of frivolous tasks. 

For example, writing a book or an article may be a top priority.  The thirty minutes you spend crafting social media posts and replying to comments (every day) may now seem less important in light of this goal. Building an online audience is a good idea, but what use is an audience if you don’t have any books or publications for them to read?

The ability to focus in a world filled with distractions and interruptions is a specialised skill, but it is a skill that you can develop and strengthen.

If you’d like to improve your ability to concentrate, then I recommend scheduling large blocks of time (2-4 hours) several times a week for doing just that. Treat this like you would any other appointment. Log out of your email (set an auto-responder if you have to) and put your phone on flight mode. If your fingers itch to “just check” your phone or email, strengthen your resolve to stick with the task at hand. If “looking up” a certain fact, method, procedure, recipe or dog grooming technique suddenly seems vitally important, write this thought down on a notepad with the intention of Googling said query after you’ve finished working. 

Learning to focus isn’t as easy, and few would describe this process ‘fun’, but there is little satisfaction in a workday spent replying to emails. Just remember that the next time you go to check your inbox. 

Is Social Media Killing Us?

When people talk about social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were describing a dysfunctional romantic relationship. We’ve all read countless articles and watched news segments about how harmful social media can be.

For some, these online platforms can cause the user to experience anxiety and depression as they compare their (supposedly) not-so-perfect lives to the (apparently) glitter-soaked-farting-rainbows-totally-perfect lives of others.

People talk about how they hate:

  • the shallowness of social media
  • the ease with which people can post uninformed/misinformed content
  • people’s ability to post nasty, hurtful and anonymous comments
  • that it’s a total time suck

And yet, we all use it.

Walk down the street, sit in an airport terminal, hang out in a waiting room, stand in line at your favourite coffee shop and what will you see? People scrolling on their phones.

We kind of hate social media—and let’s be honest, it’s ‘cool’ to hate on social—but we kind of love it too.

If you are a writer (or a creative of any kind) that having a social media presence is pretty much essential. (Though, some people argue against this point). While there are some authors who’ve achieved success without having a ‘platform’, these people are outliers. They are the exception, not the rule.

Social media is a part of our lives, but it doesn’t have to be. When and how we use social is the key to whether it supports or hinders our endeavours. The following blog discusses:

  • why having a social media presence is important
  • how these platforms are distractive and addictive
  • how to create boundaries around your social media use and why you should.

Author Platform

It doesn’t matter if you are a freelance writer, a traditionally published author or an indie. If you are a writer, you need an author platform. (More or less). An author platform is how you create trust with your audience and cultivate opportunities with other professionals and publishers in the industry. You could look at it as digital networking (socialising while staying at home in your jammies) or you could see it as another way to build relationships.

An author platform typically includes a stagnant(ish) website, an active blog and a presence on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and even YouTube.

To build an audience, you must create valuable (and free) content on your blog and social media pages. If you produce quality content on a consistent basis, then you will attract an audience over time because a) you are reliable and b) you are adding value to their lives.

If you have an active blog, frequently publish guest posts and chase freelance writing opportunities, you’ll quickly develop a solid body of work. This will add to your credibility as a writer. Plus, industry professionals will see you as reliable, proactive and prolific. In case you didn’t realise, these are good things to be seen as.

A healthy author platform can open doors to publishing opportunity, speaking gigs, invitations to networking events and collaborations with other creatives.

If you work your author platform, you can make it work for you.

Distraction & Addiction

Now that you understand the value of having an author platform, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Social Media (can) = Distraction & Addiction.

Writing an article, working on a novel or developing a short story takes time. These creative endeavours could be likened to a turtle race or a game of lawn bowls because they are so damn slow. Making something out of nothing requires hours of dedicated focus, research and considered revision. That being said, the completion of these tasks can lead to a deep sense of satisfaction.

You can’t bang out a novel in an afternoon.

Writing an article or publishing a short story or novel is delayed gratification. There may be a yearlong gap (likely longer) between your initial idea and the date of publication.

Social media is the complete opposite. You think of something, publish it and then experience immediate gratification in the form of heart symbols, thumbs up, and comments.

Hello, Love/Admiration/Acceptance/Acknowledgment-of-my-existence!

There is no delay with social media. That is why it’s so addictive. No doubt you’ve heard about the dopamine hit that occurs every time there is an increase in our number of followers, likes or comments.

Social media is easy and fun.

Writing a novel can be a lot of fun, but few would describe it as easy. Ever noticed how you may reach for your phone or open your web browser whenever you hit a difficult point in your story or are unsure what to say next?

Social media is a source of distract because it is easy and it offers immediate rewards.

This need to constant ‘check in’ causes our mind to become scattered making it that much more difficult to focus on our high priority tasks. Like you know, writing shit.

(If this part of the blog piques your interest, check out Cal Newport’s work).

Creating Boundaries

This is why we need to create rules and boundaries around how we use social media.

The one rule that ALL creatives should live by is to create before you consume. Let me say that again in a way that looks more official and Twitter-worthy …

Social Media Rule #1: Create Before You Consume.

That means you post your original content whether it be a piece of flash fiction, a photograph, a video, blog, article, short storysomethingbefore you start scrolling other people’s feeds, channels or websites.

In regards to boundaries, there is a slew of ways to reduce social media’s ability to distract you. Here’s just a few:

  • Keep your phone in your desk drawer during writing sessions
  • Use apps like Freedom.to to block specific sites/apps for set time periods
  • Schedule your social media time, for example, fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the afternoon
  • Spend one hour a week automating your social media posts using sites such as Hootsuite (that way you don’t HAVE to go on every day or at certain times of the day)
  • Make it a personal rule that you do not use social media before 8am or after 6pm and that you have one screen-free day a week.

Social media isn’t evil …. Okay, given the fact that it is literally DESIGNED to be addictive … it’s a little evil ….

The truth is, technology has created work opportunities that creative people couldn’t have had twenty years ago. It’s possible to go out there and to sell directly to your audience and to have full creative control over your product. And that is something worth celebrating!

But we also need to acknowledge that social media, if left unchecked, can become a hindrance to our creative process.

Milk this tool for all the golden latte deliciousness it can deliver, but also know that your Tweets, Instagram posts and YouTube videos will not exist forever.

The book that beats in your heart and that itches to escape through your fingers will outlive you, but only if you write and publish it.  

The difference between an author and an emerging writer is your resolve and dedication to the projects that really matter—the ones that are going to move the needle.

A solid author platform will help build an audience, but an audience is no good if you have nothing to sell them.

Your book has to be your top priority.

The work must always come first.

Create before you consume and you may wind up with a career beyond your wildest dreams. Write. Write a lot. And share those stories with the people who are hungry to read them.

Five Things That Will Derail Your Writing

Five things that will zap my productivity and derail a writing day like nothing else* are a lack of sleep, technology/internet, excessive noise, not knowing what needs to be done next and skipping breaks.

Lack of sleep

This is a tricky one to talk about because we are both in control and not in control of our sleep patterns. A bad night’s sleep doesn’t always derail my productivity, but it does influence what tasks I chose to complete. If I’m sleep deprived, I probably won’t tackle heavy tasks like reading theoretical scholarly texts or writing assignments. If I’m feeling weary, I tend to tackle lighter tasks like writing blogs, editing vlogs or catching up on domestic chores and errands. Of course, there are also times when you just have to take the damn day off.

There are habits you can develop that both assist and hinder your quality of sleep. Avoiding blue-light (laptops, mobiles and even televisions), keeping the room cool, minimising all forms of light and noise from your bedroom and engaging in relaxing activities at least one hour before bed are all good practices to improve your quality of sleep. Doing the exact opposite of this may not affect your sleep, but if you’re struggling to get eight hours of shut-eye, reassessing your sleep-time habits and developing new healthier ones is a must.

The internet, email and social media

This one is fairly obvious, right? The internet/technology is an endless source of interruption with all those bells and dings that alert us whenever we get an email, text or phone call. It is so easy to distract ourselves with social media, email and texting. It is so easy to reach for our phone or web browser whenever a task feels too hard or a problem arises and we don’t know how to fix it. Unless you have an iron will – some days I do and some days I don’t – the best way to combat this problem is by turning off your devices, including your wifi. An even better solution is relocating your workspace to a place where there is no wifi! Hello, dingy café!

Excessive noise

I prefer writing in silence, but that’s not always possible. While I can easily tune out a little background noise, the sound of the television, music playing or people talking can become very distracting. If you can’t relocate your workspace, then I highly recommend that you check out the website ambient-mix.com. This site contains a wide variety of looped white noise soundtracks including Sherlock’s Apartment and Griffindor Common Room. It’s not silence but when combined with a comfy pair of headphones it’s the next best thing.

Not knowing what needs to be done next

This point pertains to just about everything from academic and creative writing to your good old general to-do list. It is so easy to waste time when you don’t know what needs to be done in order to move forward.

If I start a writing session without knowing what needs to happen next, I can waste 10-30 minutes staring at the screen or writing waffle because I’m trying to write my way into the story rather than writing the story. If I refer to my outline or if I spend five minutes writing a mini-outline, then I can dive right into the story because I know what has to happen next.

When it comes to general to-do lists, it’s not always easy to determine which tasks are the priorities. A lengthy to-do list can leave us feeling scatterbrained and overwhelmed, especially when every task seems vital and urgent. Our inner taskmaster will try to convince us that everything is important and everything needs to be done right now, but that is rarely the truth. A simple way to combat this problem is to consider which tasks (if any) have deadlines. If so, start with those – especially if the deadline is soon. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to re-examine your list and ask yourself if any of these tasks can be broken into smaller tasks. For example, you may be torn between writing your next assignment or working on your thesis. Given that your assignment is due first, that task needs to be made the priority. If you are working on a long-term project like writing a thesis, you need to break that HUGE task into small manageable steps like read five journal articles this week and write a 500-word piece that summaries what you’ve learned or find ten sources that will help you write the first chapter.

Skipping breaks

This bad habit has two different forms. First, there is the chugging away day after day after day which can quickly lead to burn out and a week spent on the couch staring at the ceiling or Netflix if that’s your jam. The second is when you work for five hours straight – no stretching, no toilet breaks, no water, no lunch – and then collapse in a heap at 2pm.

Taking a break can seem like a lousy idea when you’re in the flow. And look, if you don’t take a break, the writing police aren’t exactly going to kick down your door, but most of the time we aren’t working in a frenzy because the muse has whacked us with her inspiration stick, we’re simply working. And when you’re simply working, make sure you take regular breaks.

You may enjoy using the Pomodoro technique of working for either 25 or 45 minutes and then having a 5 or 15 minute break. These mini-breaks give you a chance to peel your eyes away from the screen and to stretch your body, get some water or go to the bathroom. Do not check your phone! The idea of these breaks is to get your eyeballs off blue-light screens.

In addition to these physical needs, it also gives your brain a rest! Dani Shapiro said that smoking used to be one of her best writing habits because it allowed her to fully relax for a couple of minutes. This was back in the early nineties i.e. no phones. These days, we fill our “breaks” with social media and texting. Rather than allowing our mind to relax and become empty, we fill them up with images, posts and Insta quotes. Please note, I am not advocating that you take up smoking but what I am saying, and Anne Lammot will back me up here, is that everything works again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you! Giving your brain a mini power down is a great way to ensure that you get the most out of a work day. Instead of going hard and burning out after a couple of hours, you can steadily putt through an entire day.

These five things may be small, but the impact they have on your level of productivity can be huge. Thankfully, all five of these distractions and interruptions can be overcome with a little planning and a splash of will power. Don’t let anything get in the way of finishing your story or reaching your writing goals, not even Instagram!

(*Disclaimer: this list does not include the interrupts and emergencies that life can throw at us. Instead, it focuses on the inconveniences we can control).