The next time you feel resistance or writer’s block, notice where your attention is.
It’s not a question of whether you’re paying attention – you’re always paying attention to something. It’s a question of what you’re attending to and what kind of attention you’re using.
Flavors of Attention
I used to think attention is attention is attention. After reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, I recognize that attention is a continuum. I call the two poles of the continuum hard focus and soft focus.
Hard focus is what most of us think of as paying attention. We focus intentionally and intently on a problem (or person or thing). We look right at it.
As Lehrer points out, our attention is external; we notice the details of the problem. The problem is the foreground and the background fades. The challenge is that sometimes we get so close to the problem, we lose perspective. We’re staring so intently at one particular tree, we lose sight of the forest.
Soft focus might be thought of as daydreaming or distractibility. Our focus floats; we touch the problem, the drift to something else. We see a problem peripherally; we look at out of the corner of our eye.
According to Lehrer, our attention becomes internal, although it seems to me that isn’t always the case. The problem is still the foreground, but we focus on the background. We see the forest.
Why You Need Both
Hard focus will take you far, but only so far. You need to research and recognize the details of the problem and to study how similar problems have been solved.
But if the problem requires a truly creative solution, hard focus won’t see it. Soft focus is the source of new associations and combinations.
After you do the research and analysis of hard focus, let yourself stop thinking about the problem. Resist the temptation to immediately distract yourself with another task that requires focused attention – don’t check your email or social media, don’t read, don’t try cross something else off your To Do list.
To achieve the soft focus that you need, take a walk — there’s no better way to see the forest than to walk among the trees. Playing with Process will often take you to soft focus. Or just let your eyes go soft as you gaze out a window at the horizon, not looking at anything in particular. Or close your eyes and let your mind wander.
Eventually your mind will wander into a solution. And then it will be time to shift back to hard focus. Writers need to see the forest AND the trees.