Blog posts, Twitter, books, magazines, articles, industry news, RSS feeds, YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, email….
With so many data sources in our lives, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. We’re living with a fire-hose stream of information turned on us, full blast! How many times have you sat down at the computer to read one article, clicked to something else, and something else again, until you looked up to realize that an hour had disappeared?
Now imagine this:
You sit down to review your subscriptions and RSS feeds. Instead of scanning through so many Tweets and web pages and blog post titles that they all start to blur together–instead of clicking links indiscriminately (because so many look like they contain really useful info)–you select two or three based on predetermined criteria. You know exactly what kind of information you’re looking for, because you’ve chosen a focus; you limit your reading to the specific skill you’ve decided to hone in the coming week.
Since you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can sort through the flood of information relatively quickly. Heck, you might even have time to spend a few minutes on social media. You drop a note to an #amwriting friend, congratulating her on meeting her writing goal for the week; or maybe you offer a word of encouragement to another writer bemoaning a bad case of writer’s block.
When you sit down at your keyboard, you’re energized, recharged, and ready to rock some writing!
Sound like a fantasy? It’s not. The only difference between the first scenario and the second is the presence of FOCUS.
The Benefits of Focus
1. Focus helps you save time.
Choosing a focus–a specific skill or concept you want to target during a specific time period–saves time because it lets you filter incoming information. If that interesting blog post has to do with your current focus, you read it; if not, you might bookmark it for later, but for the time being, you set it aside.
2. Focus lets you be intentional and efficient in what you read and absorb.
However, the power of focus goes beyond helping you decide what to eliminate from your to-read list. It also helps you to be intentional in what information you actually retain. As a result, you can process and remember information more efficiently.
When you read too many Tweets, blog posts, informational articles, and so on, you don’t give your brain the time it needs to process the information you’re taking in. Processing time helps your brain to make connections with other information which, in turn, improves your ability to remember and understand what you’ve just read.
3. Focus lets you identify specific target areas for improvement–and take action on them.
One problem we face in this age of information overload is that it’s easy to confuse reading (or skimming!) with actual learning. Reading about something isn’t the same as learning that thing.
READING about writing isn’t the same as WRITING or improving your writing skill.
If you want to improve your writing skill, you need to take the next step–you need to practice that skill. Not only that: you need to practice the skill deliberately, intentionally, and with full attention.
In his book, Focus, Daniel Goleman writes:
Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we’re practicing. At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point, you don’t need to think about it. You can do the routine well enough on automatic.
And this is where amateurs and experts part ways. Amateurs are content, at some point, to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training, whether in skiing or driving, people get to that “good enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible. The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particular feedback from a seasoned coach.” – David Goleman, Focus
In other words, focus is the difference between the amateur and the pro.
Do You Write on Autopilot? Or with Focus?
It’s easy to coast through our writing on autopilot. In fact, mentally critiquing your writing craft is the last thing you want to do while drafting a story. That’s when you want to silence your inner editors, critics, and nay-sayers.
If you really want to improve your writing skill, though, then try this experiment: pick one area of focus for the coming week. Set aside 5, 10, or 15 minutes a day to practice working on that particular skill. If you want to improve your ability to write metaphor, practice creating new metaphors. Drill the skill the way a basketball player drills layup shots.
I guarantee you’ll start seeing a different more quickly than you expect!
Your turn: What writing skill do you need to practice? I’d love to hear how it goes!
For those who are interested, here’s a link to the book mentioned above. I highly recommend it!