In a charming little piece, Upside of Distraction, Benjamin Nugent describes how he became ironically less productive when he focused solely on his writing, editing out television, internet and non-writing friendships. When he reintroduced normal, modern-day distractions, his writing became more lively and interesting.
But most of us never achieve the pristine (flat) focus he describes in the “before” section of his essay. We spend most of our writing hours desperately training our eyes away from the blinking, beeping and pinging reminders of other things to do.
To combat this distraction, try using state dependent memory. Find a place and time that help you focus. Write in that space and time over and over, until your body and mind remember it. Make it ritual. Coffee first. Smoothie second. Shutters open. Music on. Sunlight shining on desktop. Go.
But then, after you have completed that ritual work time, open yourself up to unpredictable, spontaneous discovery by moving outside, to new places, around new people, to prevent your thinking from going flat.
As Nugent suggests, in writing, you need to balance narrow focus and open receptiveness. A walker can get where she’s going efficiently by minding the already-worn path. She will be less likely to trip on stones and twist her ankle. But if she only ever stays on the path, never steps into even a little bit of the unpredictable, she will rarely find that interesting nest or that strange blue bug that live in the weeds.