The Balance Between Focus and Distraction for Writers

How to curate information to optimize productivity

Thinking of article ideas can be difficult. As a writer, when it’s my job to come up with things to write about, the inception process occasionally presents a greater challenge than the actual writing itself.

I’m not talking about being unable to come up with any ideas — far from it. Often I’ll have too many ideas. Miscellaneous, disjointed ideas, all bouncing and bopping around my head like faulty yo-yo’s on an elastic band.

Over time, I’ve been able to mitigate these impingements and streamline my creative process.

First, I try to focus first on a theme I want to write about. Then I move into more particular ideas. For example, starting with the theme of productivity and then honing in on morning routines or reading or meditation.

General to particular — an easy two-step idea generator.

Yet, as I mentioned, sometimes there are just too many themes and notions jumbled amidst my imagination. My inability to focus, aim, and develop ideas impeded my writing process — why couldn’t I just pick an idea and write?

Then it hit me: I was overstimulated. I realized I was being exposed to such a high volume of information, noise, and hubbub each day that my creativity was being thwarted.

It was stemming from the volume of information and noise I see everyday. Social media, news channels, books, movies, advertisements, music, pop culture — everything blares in perpetuity.

The volume — the excess — of information we’re exposed to on a daily basis clutters our minds. External sources inundate every corner of our brains, leaving less room for creativity and independent musings.

A constant influx of noise shields us from our own thoughts. Like a prison cell with walls made of noisy advertisements, we are trapped in a push and pull of diversions. Our ability to create novel ideas becomes more and more impotent.

Distractions collude to seize our attention. Ideas become more and more vague as they infuse with the invading noise.

Outside noise is tremendous at distracting us from our own self.

As a writer, or worker or creator of any degree, this proves frustrating. Working with an unsteady grasp on our own attention is a recipe for poor output and suspect quality.

Curating information for higher productivity

Have you ever closed an app all the way by sliding it upwards after double clicking the home button, only to re-open it immediately after it closes?

“Why am I even doing this?” you may think when you’re scrolling through an app.

We have lost our way by over-consuming, and this inhibits the creative process.

Finding what is essential and conducive to productivity becomes more and more challenging because our tools that can make us most productive, such as smart phones, are also the bane to our productivity.

The potential to both distract or optimize our lives are always within a fingertips reach, yet it becomes so difficult to choose the latter.

The result is that we are always busy but not always productive. There is less sense of accomplishment and more sense of being forced into someone else’s opinions or schedule.

As distractions compile, they take up headspace and prevent effective work from being accomplished. Our mind clutters, our schedules clutter, and we’re left less productive and with a lower creativity. Not to mention less free time to do what is genuinely important.

When I write, I turn off my phone and desktop notifications and log out of social media accounts. I close other tabs on my browser and plug in headphones to play a wordless song on repeat.

I optimize my work space and environment by eliminating distractions during the writing process.

But what about all other hours of the day? These matter too. Churning out ideas and articles can be impeded by a constant intake of informational garbage, social media, and so forth.

While optimizing a work space during work hours are necessary, the other hours of the day cannot be ignored altogether. If left unchecked, too many non-essential bits of information float around, moving in and out of our consciousness.

To heighten our awareness and productivity, create space where you can pause and discern what it is you are reading, watching, or scrolling through.

Ask yourself: what is information is conducive to a high creative output? What is absolutely essential, and what is not?

Give up something along the way to protect yourself from losing your way. That could be television, video games, social media, smart phone apps — whatever it may be, pick your sacrifice and stick to it.

Work must be done, no matter what your occupation or pursuit. When there is work to be done, there is productivity to be had.

Yet we often fail to account for productivity during the hours outside of work — our intake of miscellaneous, garbage information corroborates this.

Tailoring your day — outside of your creative hours — to be more conducive to creativity entails less of a mindless intake of externalities and more intentional action and focus.

Bestselling travel writer. Columnist. Author. USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

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