By Annie Raab
Sometimes it seems that writers possess a uniquely short attention span. Between generating words, researching esoteric topics to render believable stories, and attempting to maintain at least partially in reality, the battle for attention is a competitive field. Luckily, humans have been struggling to concentrate on tasks long before the internet, and some have even developed methods and techniques to keep you on track when that one deadline becomes an unavoidable shape on the horizon.
What we’re looking for: When I’m working to meet a deadline, I’m looking for the perfect balance between accountability, productivity, and procrastination. In my subjective experience, these three elements working together create the most fruitful work sessions that replace the guilt of putting things off with pride in your recent accomplishments.
The big picture stuff:
To improve your concentration abilities consistently over time, you must do all those things you’re sick of hearing about—sleep at night, get regular exercise, drink water, get some fresh air, and don’t stare at your phone in bed. But these cure-all methods are not on your side when what you really need is a quick fix for a tight schedule. Enter three time-based methods to improve your focus.
“The Pomodoro Technique”
This is a popular style of working that aims to tackle a whole day of work, rather than a single session of only a couple hours.
The set up: Anywhere work happens! The Pomodoro Technique is focused on small chunks of work and doesn’t necessarily require peer-to-peer accountability. Your main source of accountability is the clock itself, as the time slots to work within are so small, there’s no excuse not to work.
The method: Break your work into 25 minute chunks and take a 5 minute break at the end of each. If you’re lucky enough to work from home during the pandemic, this method can support tackling chores or paying attention to your pets as a built-in method of productivity. You can work on a number of tasks this way, as long as you set your timer for 25 minutes, and take a 5 minute break when the timer goes off to give your brain and eyes a little relief from the screen. After an hour, take a 15 minute break before getting back to work. Repeat for the length of your normal work day.
The why: So for those of us accustomed to working 4-5 hours at a time on our computers without a break, how does it make sense to break that up into smaller pieces? The research behind this is pretty simple, but it basically boils down to the idea that we are not machines designed to work on a task from start to finish. It’s like cramming for an exam the night before—you may remember the answers for the test, but the overall quality of your learning will be significantly lower than if you studied a little over a longer period of time. Although one downside of this method is that it doesn’t work for meetings, phone calls, or unscheduled events in a normal work day, it’s pretty useful for writing, editing, reading, and all the other antisocial stuff MFAs like us are required to do. Taking short breaks after work sessions can help you avoid eye strain, avoid muscle cramps, attend to your surroundings, and keep you from experiencing burnout by the end of the day.
“The Swedish Schoolchildren Technique” aka the “45-15”
Ok, I don’t know if this has a real name. But in my pre-grad school writing group, my friend suggested we use this method for work sessions and claimed she based this on how Swedish children structure their school days. Over the years, I’ve altered this a little for optimal accountability.
The set up: This works best with at least two people in the group. You can be in person or distant, as long as you have a way to communicate. I’ve done this at libraries, coffee shops, classrooms, and on Zoom, and it works for any medium you choose.
The method: Go around the group and have everyone say what they’re going to work on for the first session. Be specific, and make sure your goal is manageable in the 45 minutes allotted for the first work session. Tell your group members what you’re doing, and what you hope to have accomplished at the end of the session. This creates accountability and encouragement between the group members, and vocalizing your goals helps make them more tangible.
Set a timer for 45 minutes and get to work. Here’s the trick: DO NOT STOP FOR ANY REASON. Don’t switch tasks, don’t Google anything strange, don’t get distracted by rants on social media. Just work on the one task for 45 minutes. I promise it’s worth the reward.
When the 45 minute timer goes off, STOP WORKING. Even if you’re in the middle of a sentence, turn off your brain and use 15 minutes to give your group and update, get a coffee, doink around the internet, whatever. That 15 minutes is yours to do what you please. Once that 15 minutes is up, start the process over again. Repeat as many times as you like.
The why: The best thing about the 45-15 method is the accountability and the built-in time to procrastinate. Using this method is a good way to hack your own laziness and distracted habits by allowing time for them once the work is completed. Too often, we procrastinate on a deadline without putting a deadline on our procrastination. With 45-15, procrastination is built into the method itself, which makes you feel more productive.
I’m a big fan of lists. A good, clean list is a beautiful thing to scribble all over in that high-flying state of task-mastering. I make lists for everything and I am confident enough to say there is an art to the list at every stage, from making to completion. Yes I’m a Virgo.
But sometimes, good-intentioned lists can become unintentional monsters when the tasks are all staring up at you from the same two-dimensional space. Seeing everything you’ve put off all in the same place can cause one to run and hide. The key to a list that makes you more productive but doesn’t overwhelm is, oddly, to make the list way longer.
The set up: Ok, you have to start with the big scary list first. Write down all the things you need to accomplish. It might look like this:
Finish assigned reading
Write research paper
Finish blog post
Finish designing spring semester class
This monster list might send anyone with concentration problems to the hospital. But seeing everything big together is the first step to breaking it down.
The method: Chop each big task up into little pieces. For “finish assigned reading”, you can break it down to “read five pages today.” “Write research paper” might become “revise thesis; brainstorm conclusion; read two articles.” Then, make a new list for each task that stretches the big goal wide enough to span the length of time remaining before your deadline. One of your new lists for “Write novel” might look like this:
Edit two pages (per day) of novel
Send advisor check-in email
Check out two comp titles from the library
Read one article about ice fishing (for research)
Brainstorm character names
The why: When we take something big and overwhelming like “Write a novel” and break it down into manageable pieces that can be repeated until completion, we suddenly narrow our focus and can put one foot in front of the other. Having a large, ambitious goal is good, but we live day-by-day, moment to moment, and must train our brains to work in that capacity rather than biting off more than we can handle when faced with giant tasks.
Well, I hope this helps. Go forth and be productive!