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Losing Our Ability To Focus - what it's meant for me as a writer


I'm currently halfway through reading, Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari about the harm done to our ability to think, problem solve and create by the many distractions we live with each day. Distractions including, but not limited to, social media, multi-tasking and the constant interruptions in our homes and workplaces.


As a writer, what I've found most disturbing so far in Hari's book is his claim that the more distracted we are, the less creative we become. He refers to research by psychologist and creativity expert, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly who coined the expression to be in 'flow'.


Mihaly developed his insights on 'flow' through studying painters. He noted that in creating their works, painters often entered a state of intense focus where they lost awareness of themselves and of time passing. Further, he noted that the minute they finished a painting they'd put it aside and start a new one, indicating it wasn't the finished product that drove them but the flow state itself.


Hari describes how, after cutting himself off from all distractions, he was finally able, after several weeks, to enter a flow state working on his novel. He reports that during this period he found himself bouncing out of bed each morning, not to check his phone or his emails, but to rush back to work on his story.


His description instantly caught my attention. Those words - bouncing out of bed each morning to work on my story - was exactly the experience I had writing my first published novel, Run To Me.


For years I've wondered why I never felt that same level of joy writing any of my subsequent novels. Don't get me wrong, I've loved writing all my stories, but never quite to the same degree as with Run To Me, where my first thought the minute I opened my eyes in the morning was wanting to get back to my writing.


Reading Hari's book, it suddenly occurs to me - maybe there was nothing lacking in those subsequent stories I wrote, as I've so often feared. Maybe the difference wasn't in the plots or the subjects or the characters I'd created, but in my decreasing ability to enter a flow state.


Looking back I see that immediately after Run To Me was accepted for publication, I had to do all the customary things newbie authors are called on to do to build their platforms - put up a website, sign up to Facebook and Twitter, engage on-line, etc.


Then when Run To Me was released, instead of bounding out of bed each morning to work on my next book, I found myself answering emails, replying to comments, reading and stressing over reviews. All things that are so much easier to do than writing!


I remember that around the same time I also upgraded my phone from something to use in case of emergency to a 'proper' resource allowing me to stay in constant touch with everyone and everything in my life.


Is it any wonder my ability to focus and enter a flow state became eroded?


Back when I was at university studying violin I would spend 4-6 hours a day immersed in the flow state of practicing. I recently picked up the violin and found I could hardly play through some scales without my mind wandering off.


Three times a year I organize writing retreats for a group of writer friends at a remote seaside setting. For the first day I'm there I spend most of my time setting up my workspace, walking on the beach or otherwise 'settling in'. It takes me a good 24 hours to adjust to the silence and lack of distractions the venue provides. And others have reported the same.


I always knew our retreats were important. So many people who've attended them have told me they got more work done in that single week than they could have over months at home. Others have rekindled a love of writing they thought they had lost. Is it purely because they were given the chance?


Having read Hari's books I will cherish even more these times when I can 'get away from it all' and fully immerse myself in writing. I'll also begin to look for ways to limit distractions in my daily life.


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