How to Focus when You Don't Want To (Just Five More)

Concentration is difficult for me. In fact, I started this draft about 6 months ago, and am just now getting around to writing the first sentence.

Focus is Fleeting

So much of creative work requires spontaneity, abstract thought, and ideas that seem to pop up out of the blue. However, I believe the truly great artists are the ones who have taught themselves to focus and produce even when they feel uninspired or even tired of what they are making.

We are all familiar with a sense of inspiration, the passionate and sometimes overwhelming desire and need to create, and many creative people spend their lives chasing this inspiration; whether by aid of substances, romantic involvements, travel, danger, experience, you name it. However, it seems to me that the artists that choose to rely not on inspiration, but on the accumulation of skill, and proving to themselves time after time that they can create something good, those are the ones who find true happiness and contentment, and fulfillment in their work.

What’s the point of it all?

And, of course we have to consider why you are an artist to begin with. If your intent is to become famous, or to accumulate wealth, or to gain power, these words are probably not for you. However, if you are an artist who simply wants to create good, and pull beauty out of chaos, this might be helpful. In any case, I hope it’s encouraging to hear that at least one other person in the world understands what it’s like to hit a creative wall, and maybe, just maybe, this’ll help.

Just Five More
I’ve been a freelancer for a couple of years now, and one thing I never anticipated before pulling the plug on my old job was that I would have to completely change the way I approach work. It’s a very different world when you lose the boss and answer to yourself, and it turns out that yourself is not a very good person to be accountable to. I found myself losing joy in the work that I do, whether that was editing images, sending emails, or anything productive. My brain was doing anything that it could to be distracted, and to fill my time with things that weren’t ultimately useful.

I had the good fortune to stumble across a very helpful article that I can’t find anywhere now, but the gist is that the author was encouraging readers to, when they reach the end of their focus on a particular task, to force themselves to do five more things, go five more minutes, accomplish five more tasks, before moving on. It talked about the way that our attention spans have changed in the modern world of the internet and instant communication, and this methodology was suggested in order to train your brain to focus again.

I really do think we’ve lost some of our collective ability to focus on a single thing at a time; we live in a world where the news changes ever ten seconds, and there are constantly a million things bombarding us, a million decisions and responsibilities that we are made aware of all the time by our notifications, constant connection to social media, and plenty of other avenues. Every problem is immediate, and requires an immediate response. This creates an environment where you are constantly responding to emergencies, making it impossible to lay out a schedule, list tasks, and check them off one by one.

This sort of organization is crucial to creative work; you cannot always be in the right place at the right time, and much of our work to make good art is patience, planning, and careful thought. If you are interrupting yourself every few minutes to attack a different idea, you’ll never make the progress you need to.

So for the past few months whenever I sit down to edit, write, email, invoice, or whatever, when I started to get bored or uninterested, and often just as I’ve stood up from my desk to move on to the next thing; I’ll catch myself, say aloud “just five more,” and then go back to work. After some time doing this intentionally, I’ve found that after jumping that first hurdle of distraction, I can go back to work for much longer than just 5 minutes or 5 more things, and that I can accomplish much more than I thought I could originally.

Creativity is fickle, and you can’t depend on inspiration if you’re trying to consistently create good work. I’m not trying to detract from the value of an inspiring moment, or seeking our inspiration from other good work; just trying to encourage you and tell you that you don’t have to rely on outside forces or the whims of fate. Keep working. Keep pushing, and eventually you’ll find yourself on the other side.