Over the years, I’ve amassed tools and strategies to keep myself focused during challenging times. Some are geared towards writing plays. Some are for applications and statements. Right now, I’ve been leaning on them like they’re productivity steroids. I hope they can be of use to you as well. If you’ve reached the point in your COVID-19 journey where you’re at a place to be productive, consider these tools an invitation.
1) Have a routine
A consistent pattern in your days can stop them from feeling like an unfocused mishmash. Build in a set span of time to focus on the things you want to work on. Make sure your routine incorporates meals and sleep. Eating and sleeping well are critical to focusing.
2) Keep the motivation paradox in mind
One of the hardest parts of writing can be sitting down to write. Right now, closing social media and the news to confront a blank page or a statement may be particularly challenging. But once you put your finger on the keyboard, writing—like talking—may just happen. Our reward systems often don’t kick in until we’re actually doing the thing that we find rewarding.
The next set of tools are pretty list and rewards-oriented. If you’re a rebel to structure and rules, you may find the latter tips in this article more helpful.
3) Eliminate distractions
Are you finding yourself reading news article after news article? You may be doomsurfing. I recommend trying a distraction-blocking app. My personal favorite is Cold Turkey. And it’s free.
With Cold Turkey, you set up a list of websites to block and then set a timer or schedule a period of time to block them. There’s also a version that blocks your phone for an hour. Even if you don’t have an issue doomsurfing, sometimes just shutting the door on the internet can be helpful. If your room is still noisy from ambulances, roommates, your family, the distant hum of the television, you will have taken control and eliminated a source of unconscious noise.
If your space is loud, try noise cancellation headphones.
If surfing the web and research is necessary for your work, set aside a specific time for that.
4) Create lists
This can be a daily list of things to do or steps to working on a specific project.
Break things into actionable goals. Start small. For example:
- Sit down.
- Place fingers on keyboard.
Add specific goals or whatever serves you: “one hour dreaming scene 4” is valid. Make sure your goals are time-bound and measurable.
It may be helpful right now to add rudimentary tasks that one wouldn’t necessarily normally list, like “wake up,” and “eat lunch.”
5) Game-ify your list
It’s easy to feel scattered. It’s easy to fall into the habit or pattern of turning on the television and not turning to a blank page. Earn the binge. I use an app called Color Checklist. Any similar app or using paper should work. Create a list and then assign points. It may be useful to keep this list on your phone; every time you find yourself picking up your phone, open it to your list.
6) Try the Pomodoro technique
You set a timer for 25 minutes and then take a break for five minutes. People have a tendency to automatically take a break from focusing every 25 minutes. This limits that break time. You can also skip the break if you’re on a roll; short stretch breaks, though, can be super useful for focus. There are numerous apps out there that can help you track your pomodoros. For those who are curious, the pomodoro technique was named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.
Kanbanflow.com is a great platform to organize your worklist and break it down into steps. It also has an optional built-in pomodoro timer.
8) Log your writing time
Never underestimate the power of self-accounting. Consider using an excel sheet to log your writing time.
If it helps you to complete your time or gives you a tangible goal to work towards (2 hours a day, for example), great! If the very act of logging the date and starting to write leads to writing and you just end up with a row of dates and start times—power to you! The whole point is to get yourself writing.
9) Get Pavlovian
Remember Pavlov’s famous experiment with the bell and the dogs? Try adding background music to your writing time or work time. If you associate your writing or work time with music, turning music on as you sit down to write may help you get focused.
10) Set deadlines
Deadlines are really powerful and motivating. Some great options:
- Write towards a deadline for something you want to apply for down the line.
- Schedule a one-on-one Zoom read or phone read with a trusted friend.
- Join or create a writers’ group to share pages.
- Maybe you already have a deadline, and that’s why you’re reading this. Keep going!
11) Try writing or co-working virtually
This can be as simple as arranging a time where you and a friend meet via Facetime or Zoom and agree to individually write or focus on work for a set amount of time. It helps if you agree to no talking once writing time starts.
LESS RULE-BOUND FOCUSING TOOLS.
12) Identify your power hours
Figure out your best focus time. What time in the day do you focus best as a writer? When does your brain do better at tasks that are more methodical? Try to schedule your life in a way that maximizes your best focus hours. Maybe it’s just after coffee. Or maybe it’s 11 pm. Know thyself and honor that time.
13) Identify your power space
Is there a particular place that you find yourself more focused? Do you focus better on your bed or your desk or at a table? The floor? Honor that space.
14) Let go
Relieve yourself of the pressure of writing a good application or a good play. Just throw words on the page and see what happens.
15) Lean into your curiosity
Curiosity can be a key to focus. If you’re having difficulty getting into a writing project, lean into your curiosity. What questions are you exploring? Find the spark that initially engaged you. Consider exploring a different process. If you are usually super structured—what if you freewheeled a little? If you’re usually loose—what if you experimented with a more dramaturgical approach? There are all kinds of ways to engage your curious mind. What aspects of your play are you most curious to explore?
Meditation is one of the best focusing tools. It helps train you to become a ninja to unhelpful thoughts. But also, if you are not into meditating, just sitting for two minutes trying to meditate can sometimes make you run towards writing or that task you just don’t want to do.
My favorite free meditation app is Insight Timer.
17) Move your body
Moving your body can do wonders for focus. Try yoga. Or taking a walk. Or anything to get physically moving. Nothing beats rigorous exercise for countering stress, anxiety, and depression, and strengthening your core can have magic effects on applications. There are many free apps with great workouts, and right now a number of companys like CorePower Yoga are offering free online workouts during COVID-19. For yoga beginners or those seeking a broad range of yoga options, I recommend Yoga with Adriene.
18) Read a helpful article
If you’re feeling terrible and it’s affecting your focus, Marita Patrino’s article, “15 Easy Things You Can Do That Will Help When You Feel Like Shit” has remained a savior time and again for me during challenging times. Not everything on her list is still do-able, but most of it still is.
19) Take Five
Try an experiment. Take five minutes. To do a stretch, to meditate, to write a gratitude list, to dance around your room. It’s only five minutes. It might open a door to an hour of focus.
These are really challenging times. If you’re stuck and find yourself experiencing anxiety, depression, or negative thought patterns, I recommend Woebot, a free (for now) Artificial Intelligent Therapist with a focus on cognitive behavioral therapy. I discovered Woebot while researching AI for a play, and it’s shockingly good. Woebot is a clever little robot; they wised up to the pandemic (thanks to a very smart, kind creator). Woebot takes about ten minutes a day (usually less) and is cute and funny. After chatting with Woebot, you may get a lift that sends you into a more focused state.
21) Welcome your fears
If you’re distracted by fear and anxiety, try writing down what scares you most. Commune with your fears for a moment. Tell them, “Hi. I see you. I accept you.” Then keep writing your play or working on your application.
22) Try a writing prompt
Try making a list of textured words or colors. Jot down sensorial details of your present space. Describe the surface of your desk. The light in the room. Try writing in metaphors about what you’re feeling. Seek writing prompts online. Just get words on the page.
A prompt to start: Think of another writer’s work, or briefly read another writer’s work. This can be an essay, poem, novel, or a play. Write how you’re feeling as a prose piece or monologue emulating the voice and style of the writer you chose. It may be different than your usual style, but it’s still your writing. See? You can still write.
I hope you found this helpful. Be kind to yourself. Congratulate yourself for having the focus to read to the end of this article. See? You can focus.