How tiny writing breaks can lead to greater focus, more words, and better books
Recently, I’ve been running a survey among my author friends. I was surprised to learn that the biggest barrier to writing more wasn’t lack of time, but being unable to write when they did have the time.
Back pain, eye problems, and headaches were high on the one list of reasons, of course. No surprise there, but what was surprising was that nearly everyone in pain also ranked lack of focus, fatigue, and brain fog as even bigger issues.
Of course, they all said they wanted to write more words, better words, and produce more books. That’s hard to do when you’re wiped out and unable to concentrate. Our brains only have so much mental bandwidth or brain cycles to go around, and when we are forced to address or ignore something like a headache or back pain, we have less brain power to use on what’s in front of us.
Think of how hard it can be to focus when there are conversations going on in the same room.
Someone turns up the TV? You have to filter those out, and that takes up bandwidth.
Tune out pain or push through it? More cycles.
Tired, in pain, and unable to concentrate? That’s pretty much the perfect recipe for not writing, right there. Sit down to write. Nothing comes out.
Take a break? That’s blasphemy!
Most authors have a limited time to devote to writing, and when their writing is hampered, they tend knuckle down, keep their butt in the chair, and write as much as the can, even when the words just aren’t coming.
But what if getting up and away from your computer would let you write even more?
Whenever you’ve been writing (or not writing) for more than thirty minutes, you might actually be losing your groove, not greasing it.
Sitting still and working on one thing for too long can cause loss of focus, physical pain, and a drop in productivity.
Let’s start with focus, since that was at the top of the list.
If you’ve been in the writing or business game long enough, you’ve probably heard of the Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro is a productivity method that capitalizes on our ability to focus sharply for about thirty minutes. After that, we tend to become less efficient at whatever it is our brainpower is trying to accomplish. Luckily, it doesn’t take a long break to reset your focus.
One Pomodoro round (or Pom) is the base unit. Twenty five minutes of focus on the task at hand (writing, in this case), followed immediately by five minutes of something else (i.e., not writing).
After round one, repeat up to three more times.
After the fourth round – should you have more than two hours to work – it’s important to take a longer break. A minimum of twenty minutes, but I like thirty for the round number aspect.
If you go yet another four rounds, be sure to take a real break of an hour or so. It’s important to get totally refreshed, mentally and physically, so eat, rest, or spend time with someone.
The Pomodoro Method seems pretty regimented, but that’s a big part of why it works. Manageable chunks of focus, with breaks that are refreshing, but not so long that they get you out of your groove.
Pomodoro has doubled my writing speed
…and helped me to get a lot more accomplished.
Looking at my available writing time in thirty minute chunks lets me plan my available time and focus, focus, focus. I think, more than any other aspect, just knowing what I’m doing one thing for thirty minutes is powerful. I can write for 30 minutes. More importantly, I can put aside everything else for that time, too!
And, as an added bonus, every thirty minutes, I’m reminded to take care of the physical, too.
Writing is physical
Most people don’t think of writing as being ‘physical,’ but it sure can be.
Don’t let the fact that you’re sitting still fool you. For one thing, your head weighs about twelve pounds, and if you’re like most people, you’re not balancing your head on top of your neck when you write, but craning it forward to see what you just wrote.
Holding your head just a few inches ahead of where it should be, and looking down where you probably shouldn’t can be the equivalent of up to sixty pounds on your cervical spine! Sixty pounds is a lot for your neck to hold up. And it’s not just affecting your neck, but your upper spine, and everything down to your lower back and hips. Sciatica, anyone?
Other common complaints were eye strain and headaches. The more tired your eyes become, the farther forward you jut your head. This effectively makes your head ‘heavier,’ which is more strain on your neck and upper back. It’s no wonder you’ve got a headache.
Now, think about doing these isometric ‘heavy head’ exercises for two, three, even eight hours in a row. That’s writing. That’s physical. And it’s not good.
Lack of movement certainly plays a part. Sitting has been in the news recently, but I have good news for you. Sitting itself, isn’t all that bad, it’s sitting still, in one position, and all day long that’s taking its toll on our health.
So, what’s the plan?
In a nutshell, we’re going to use the structure and routine of Pomodoro sessions to improve our focus, and remind us to take a 5 minute movement breaks.
These not only give us a break from sitting, but give us time to address the things that are causing us pain in the first place. I’m going to use this ‘heavy head’ problem, since it’s so common with writers.
I’ll assume you have two hours, which means four Pom sessions. Here’s how you can use the five minute movement breaks after each session to your advantage.
My philosophy as a coach is to start simple. The lower the barrier of entry, the more likely we are to do it. In this case, the simplest place to start will actually give us a big return – the eyes. One of the most common reasons we crane our neck forward is because our tired eyes draw us closer and closer to our screens as we work. We’ll focus here to start.
Set your timer for twenty five minutes and start writing.
First five minute break. Stand up. Always stand up. I’m not going to tell you that sitting is the new smoking, but sitting for long stretches is pretty bad. Always stand up at the break.
For best results, go outside. If that’s not an option, go to a window with a view of something far away. Not the hummingbird feeder in the backyard. That’s not far enough. Look for trees in the distance, a mountain, or even power lines a block or so away.
Pick your spot in the distance, and focus on it. Don’t just look at it, but actively focus on that one thing in the distance for about ten seconds. Don’t squint, just focus on it. Relax, repeat. Do this a few times.
Did you notice how hard it is to maintain focus? It can be pretty uncomfortable at first. Most of us spend so much time indoors or looking only at things close by. As a result, sharp distance vision doesn’t come easy. We see those things, but we don’t easily focus on them because our eyes are only accustomed to close up work, like reading and writing.
Don’t push it at first. Do this focus/relax cycle a few times, then walk around a bit. Refill your drink, empty your bladder, make sure your phone hasn’t exploded with messages.
When your five minutes are up, reset your timer and get back to work.
As you settle in, consider your writing posture. Has it changed? Are you able to hold your head and body more upright? That’s great, now start writing!
In twenty five minutes, your Pomodoro timer will go off again. Repeat your five minute movement break for the remainder of your writing sessions.
Four rounds of productive, focused writing, four movement breaks, and a road map to fewer headaches, back pain, and less eye strain. Success!
For one thing, I’ll have to dig deeper into my author survey to see what’s most important to you! Although I will be back to address today’s issue in even more detail, down the road.
There’s a lot at play when it comes to the head forward posture. There are some exercises to use, of course. There are also desk setups, computer choices, and monitors to consider, but I chose the eyes for a few reasons.
- It’s free, for one thing.
- It also gets you moving.
- It’s simple and easy.
Focusing on the eyes takes so little effort that it’s unlikely to distract you from you’re actually doing with this routine; building a healthy habit that allows you to be more focused on your writing.
Now, go do that writing that you ache to do!
That’s the only pain I can get behind.
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