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Notes From a Writer's Desk: Finding Focus

Spring is in the air. The birds are chirping, the sun is out longer, and we’re getting more and more days of 50+ degree weather. For academics in the Northeast, this can be rejuvenating, but it can also be...distracting (cue dramatic sting)!

The temptation to abandon our writing and flee our desks for the great outdoors is even more alluring when we’re trying to do the hard intellectual work of writing and our focus inevitably begins to wane. In such circumstances, writers rarely need something as wonderful as good weather to stop writing; it’s easy to turn to those less enjoyable tasks like email as an escape. Sometimes, even writing-related tasks such as secondary source research and footnote management can transform from productive writing progress into never-ending rabbit holes.

To be sure, I advocate for an expansive view of “writing,” one that includes research, brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, and a host of other tasks. But sometimes, certain types of writing can become distractions in themselves. Focusing in on a pesky footnote, searching for an elusive source, repeatedly revising the same topic sentence—these tasks have their purpose and might even help you get out of a writing rut, but they stop serving you when they prevent you from finishing a project.

Maintaining focus and resisting distraction can be done in several different ways. Perhaps key among all of these is to write with intention. Our Writing Oasis groups, for example, are designed to help writers set goals and reflect while doing time-blocked writing tasks. But even in such structured accountability groups, we can feel distracted or distractable. 

Writing with intention is not merely setting a goal, but deciding specifically that you will focus on a particular aspect of your writing. I use a time-tracking app to help me reflect on how I’m using my time on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. The app also helps to remind me of the intention I set at the beginning of that working period. For example, if I started tracking time meant for “drafting” an article, I try to stay true to that intention until I’ve met my own goal of writing/drafting for at least 30 minutes.

If you feel your attention wandering to other things, acknowledge it and then recenter. So often we might be writing or revising and are reminded that source A needs to be reread, source B needs to be quoted better, or source C needs to be found. Such citational distractions often mask themselves as “research.” I know I've deluded myself into thinking I needed to spend two hours of my writing time searching HOLLIS instead of writing new words. A helpful trick I use for managing these types of project-specific distractions is to have a separate document dedicated to listing sources I want to consult during a specific “reading” period (which I will designate and track using my time-tracker app). Another trick that I use is to use the pound (#) sign to mark in my document areas that I want to return to but that will otherwise derail my focus or are too big of detours to take for that particular writing session. When I return during a revision session, I CTRL+F my pound signs and work through them. This helps me to save certain tasks for a later time without forgetting about them.

Creating environments for yourself that help you focus is another way to get ahead of distraction. I use three techniques that, through trial and error, I found work best for my process. The first is that I write in the morning. I try and make the first thing I do writing—not email, not teaching prep. Writing. Even if I only write for 15 minutes, starting my day with writing helps me focus better because I haven’t even thought about all the other things that might demand my attention later on. 

I also use a writing tool called Scrivener, which changes the visual look of my writing and has several internal features that help me to take notes about the tasks for future me. I can see the scope of my larger project in a left-side panel, can toggle between different components of my project using tiles, and can take notes and write synopses of my current writing goal in a right-side panel. Scrivener also helps me decouple “finishing” tasks like citation management, footnotes, and formatting from the craft of putting my ideas down into prose. 

A final technique that I only recently discovered is to transform my soundscape. I am the kind of person who hates white noise, so I hadn’t ever experimented with something like this until a friend recommended This website offers free customizable soundscapes based on field recordings from the outdoors (like waterfalls) to the indoors (like libraries and cafes). Personally, I'm partial to “Irish Coast.” In fact, I listened to it to write the first draft of this blog post.

Finally, sometimes the call of the wild is too strong. Perhaps we should just accept that a nice walk around the neighborhood to enjoy warm spring air is exactly the kind of reset we need to break up a long workday. Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of finding focus while writing is that resting can truly feel like rest. 

Some resources for maintaining focus:

Ambient Noise:

Time tracking/Pomodoro:

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