Fooling Your Brain into Writing

05

I’ve realized I spend too much time writing. Not that I enjoy it so that I can’t stop, but I have this problem where I can’t make myself stay focused. After 15 minutes my brain wanders and my post becomes something I didn’t intend. I’ve been trying to trim down my writing and writing focus by decreasing the amount of time I give myself to write but all I do is break that limit and suddenly it’s midnight again and I’m swearing it won’t happen tomorrow.

As I came to day six of Blaugust, I found myself running out of steam. Because I’m devoting too much time to writing, I began to wonder if I should skip days or pre-write posts when the mood struck. From the posts I’m reading elsewhere, I can say that I’m not the only person facing the issue of sustaining our initial excitement. So remember my first post, about using tools I’ve gathered other places to augment my blogging skills? I made an effort of practical application today.

Thanks to the Internet, reaching out to experienced writers and bloggers is the work of an instant. One of my favourite Twitter people is @Seriouspony whom I met while ranting about public education and what my then-Kindergartner was facing (don’t even get me started.) Seriouspony turned out to be the fantastic Kathy Sierra, whose 2007 SXSW keynote address* is every day core to my work in community management, development, and technical writing. In addition to the speech-giving, conference-appearing work she’s done, she co-founded the Head First series of brain-friendly programming guides and literally wrote the book on Java. The point is she knows more than a bit about how the brain interprets communication on both the giving and receiving end, so I listen when she talks and especially when her topic falls in line with my current thoughts about losing steam and burnout while writing.

*The speech is transcribed by longtime Greenpeace veteran Brian Fitzgerald who is a very lovely and intelligent person you should get to know.

I found e.ggtimer.com to limit my time and prevent brain wandering and burnout while I finished my afternoon of technical writing. As pretty much anyone who has ever tried to write professionally can tell you, sometimes you don’t get to procrastinate. Technical writing is like that and then some—the document isn’t going to get written if you don’t do it, and there’s no “waiting for inspiration.”

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You form habits of prepping yourself for grinding away at document crafting. For me, that’s most often bribing myself by promising “one more class in this namespace and I can go for a walk.” Of course I was being a little cruel in rarely ever giving myself that walk, instead saying “just…one more” till I could go home. Following Kathy’s advice, I set a timer for 10 minutes and decided to be both kinder in my rewards and smaller in reward scope. 10 minutes of writing, then 10 minutes of doing whatever.

As I began applying Kathy’s suggestion to my work, I was pretty happy to find I could go 15 minutes while focusing before my brain flipped out and refused to continue. This is where previous tools came in heavily: I found the same techniques for focus in meditation were helpful in sticking with my timer schedule.

Meditation has been a live-saver for me the last 7 years. Yesterday, I mentioned enjoying living fully in the moment and there’s a lot of practice is learning that particular trick.  A common misconception about meditation is that your mind has to be completely blank. Repeatedly, I’ve been told by others “Meditation doesn’t do any good for me; I just can’t clear my mind.” Well no, because a completely silent mind is a dead mind and has nothing to do with living. Meditation as a practice is being in the moment, focused and balanced. Banishing all thoughts from your mind, ignoring the pressing matters, is impossible and counterproductive. Acknowledge the thoughts—even if that means writing down the pressing tasks swarming you so you can revisit the list after you’re finished—and draw back to your central point of focus.

That’s exactly what I used during my 15-minute work bursts. When a “must do!” task surfaced in my mind, I made a fast decision on how pressing it truly was and if immediacy was not needed, wrote the idea or task on a pad of paper and kept to my work till the timer went off. Then my brain would beg for a change of gear, and I’d work down my little list and browse Twitter. I found my “break” timer dwindling to 5 minutes, because knowing I had a definite break coming (and was going to honor that commitment to myself) made it so much simpler to jump into work-writing.

The end result today: I was more productive at work and didn’t leave the office feeling overwhelmed, I wrote this post much faster than I have any other so far this month, and I’m going to go enjoy some Dr. Who with my boyfriend, who is relieved to see me unpanicked and done writing before midnight.