SOS: How can I stay focused?
Sian Meades-Williams, freelance writer and curator of Freelance Writing Jobs, solves the issues affecting all freelancers. This week - how to stay focused when you really need to.
Q: I’m really lucky that I’ve kept most of my copywriting clients during lockdown, but I just can’t get any work done. Whenever I try, my mind wanders after ten minutes. I feel guilty about not working but I can’t get my brain in gear. How do I stay focused?
Sian says: It has taken me half an hour to type this sentence. In that time I have scrolled through Twitter, watched a stellar theatre performance, and WhatsApped a friend about a giant rabbit called Darius. Please don’t feel guilty about your lack of focus.
Of course your mind is being pulled in different directions at the moment. Some of it is anxiety, but there’s also an incredible difficult dichotomy to deal with. We’re being bombarded with scary news but day-to-day we’re also dealing with boredom. All of this plays havoc with our ability to concentrate. As freelancers we might be used to working from home, but we’re not used to working during a pandemic. We can make one helluva lunch from the weird leftovers in our fridge but that doesn’t mean we’re equipped for this level of stress. No one is.
We need to be kinder to ourselves.
We also need to remember to give our brains the tools they need to think. Even in the most difficult of times, that means plenty of sleep, water, food and fresh air. Exercise – even just getting out of the house – can help. “I've been running every day,” says musician and writer Harry Harris. “Even before this, whenever I worked from home I knew that if I stayed inside all day I'd feel stir crazy, so just being outside – as well as the actual exercise part – has been important for retaining some semblance of normality.”
The most basic things are so easy to forget when we keep forcing ourselves to work. I am always surprised how much better my brain works after some fresh air and a glass of water.
On the days when none of this is working despite our best efforts (pandemic or just a normal Tuesday), try some smart procrastination. If you just can’t face the huge task on your list, do everything else around it. Do the fun jobs, the small pieces of work, the tasks that you put on the list that aren’t even real jobs (“lunch” is regularly at the top of mine). You’re going to procrastinate anyway, do it in a way that works for you.
In between procrastination, I’ve found that working in short, sharp bursts really helps me focus.
The Chrome extension Self Control is the most useful tool on my laptop. I set a timer and it shuts out a list of websites I choose – including Twitter and my inbox – which stops my endless scrolling habit. It continues even if I restart my laptop. I always pull it out before a deadline. Once I’ve shut out the biggest distractions, I’m far more productive.
For some people the Pomodoro technique works – a burst of working for 25 minutes, before taking a short break. Really struggling? You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in 15 minutes. And you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to carry on once you’ve got started (starting is always the scariest part). Remember: you can always edit. This morning’s rough draft makes tomorrow much easier.
I’m mindful of the phrase ‘how to eat an elephant’. Huge jobs feel intimidating at the best of times. Break down your task into bite size chunks. Rather than trying to write 5000 words today, gather all the information you need. Then split it into sections. Then break those down even further. Spend 25 minutes organising chapter headings if you need to. Bite by bite.
I’ve got one more fun trick up my sleeve: I’m a huge fan of bribery. I will give my brain absolutely anything it asks for as long as it gets the job done. Playing video games, watching Netflix for six hours, stealing the last Penguin, baking a Bruce Bogtrotter-esque chocolate cake. I can have anything I want... as long as I meet my deadline first. I’ve tried many motivational techniques and childish though it may be, bribery is still the most effective. And frequently the most delicious.
However you approach your work during lockdown, take something from the fact that everyone is struggling and that there really is no rulebook for any of this. We can only ever do our best.