Focus, People! Focus!

(I bought a whiteboard today and hung it up in my home office. To me, it was a symbol that I am serious about my commitment to become a published creative writer. It also inspired this post.)

I am notoriously scatterbrained. I’m also an incredible neurotic, which is probably why none of the many therapists I’ve had throughout my 30-year history have voiced a specific diagnosis for my condition. I assume they think I’d just take the label and run, as in “Oh, I can’t possibly pay my rent today. My general anxiety disorder is acting up.” Or “Deadline? What deadline? You’ll have to excuse me. I have ADHD.”

Regardless of the lack of an official diagnosis, I got problems. Fortunately, I have learned to cope with them, largely without the aid of medication. What’s the secret? Besides wearing my body out on a treadmill about five days a week so I don’t have enough energy to be anxious, I practice two very helpful techniques.

First, I practice mindfulness. Simply put, I try to restrict my thoughts to the present, rather than mulling over the past or focusing on the future. Concentrating on the present sounds easy. After all, isn’t that what is right in front of you? But the human mind makes the simple convoluted. Memories, worries and all that other mental stuff create a kind of thought cloud that serves to detach us from the now as well as ourselves within the context of the now. I make this distinction between the now and ourselves within the now because one speaks to the external stimuli (I am sitting in a cafe as unobtrusive music plays overhead) while the other speaks to the internal stimuli (I am hungry and tired. I’m thinking how the girl sleeping at the table next to me might possibly be dead).

It is important to both observe the now and ourselves within the now. Although the past can inform the present and the present informs the future, it is the present in which we have the opportunity to truly interact with and affect life. And so, despite my constantly wandering mind, I try to reel myself in, prompting myself with such questions as “What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What are you seeing? What are you smelling?”

The other technique I employ to cope with my overactive mind is to break goals, projects, assignments, etc. down into small steps. It’s basically the whole “Every journey starts with a single step” adage translated into a self-help action. For instance, let’s say I assign myself the task of making a meatloaf. Perhaps the thought of turning a lump of thoroughly ground cow carcass into something delicious and delicious looking seems like an impossible feat. But what’s this? A recipe? You mean there are steps I can take to turn this nondescript cow mush into an entree? Now I know I can do this!

Breaking things down into steps can take many forms. My most used form is the “To Do List.” I make a To Do List almost every day. I include work-related things as well as everyday chores, such as washing dishes or going to the gym. Creating these lists helps me break down the day into many tiny chunks, which in turn instills within me a sense of direction.

Why am I writing about focusing through mindfulness and task-mastering? Because I’m beginning to realize that focus is one characteristic that separates a writer from a published writer. And I want to be a published writer. Without a routine, without discipline, the most ambitious of projects will rarely get done. And so it requires some self-soothing (mindfulness) and self-coaching (task mastering) to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Think of it as hand-holding except you are actually holding your own hand.

The aforementioned whiteboard I purchased is now covered in erasable ink. It details all the ongoing projects I am juggling. It also lists ideas for future works so that I don’t let them slip my mind. I use different colors of ink to denote different types of projects (e.g., green is for my freelance assignments, blue is for my book ideas and red is for my article pitches/essays). I also included an ever-changing “To Do List” box up in the corner. Thanks to a sale at Staples, the whole get up cost me less than $20. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and the possibility of success.

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