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How Writers Can Use Meditation to Build Focus and Productivity

by | Apr 30, 2014

When you think of meditation, what comes to mind? A yoga studio? Cheesy new age music?

How about increased productivity and better writing?

It’s true: meditation is scientifically proven to improve concentration, which can help you keep writing.

Willpower: your secret weapon

You sit down at your desk, ready to start writing. Perhaps you’ve even armed yourself with some fancy new apps to help you concentrate or keep you organized. Nothing can stop you now!

Or can it? You blocked Facebook on your computer, but can you cheat with your smart phone? Perhaps you should grab a snack before you start writing or brew another cup of coffee. Before you know it, you’ve lost an hour of your day. Again.

While tools and apps are helpful, in the end, willpower is what matters — and it’s the very thing many of us seem to lack.

That’s because willpower is a finite resource. The more you spend keeping your hand out of the candy dish or staying calm on the phone with the cable company, the less you have left over to help you hit your writing goals, says Dr. Kelly McGonigal. The Stanford University psychologist released a book, The Willpower Instinct, based on her popular course “The Science of Willpower.”

But can you actually increase your baseline supply of willpower? The answer is yes, and meditation is one of the best and easiest ways to do it.

Meet your prefrontal cortex: home of the willpower you need to be productive

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain right behind your forehead — the area you smack when you do something silly. As it turns out, there may be a good reason for this: the prefrontal cortex controls executive function, otherwise known as the power to connect your actions with their future consequences. That includes resisting temptation and working toward a previously-defined goal — like finishing that first draft.

In short, the prefrontal cortex makes sure you’re doing the right thing, even when the right thing is hard to do.

How does meditation fit into all this? Here’s the thing: meditation actually increases the gray matter in your prefrontal cortex. That’s right, meditation will strengthen your self-control, just like regular exercise will strengthen your heart.

Think you’re “bad” at meditation because your mind always wanders? That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes, “being ‘bad’ at meditation is exactly what makes the practice effective.” The act of reining your focus back in gives your prefrontal cortex the workout it needs.

Here’s a challenge worth accepting: take just five minutes each day to meditate before you start writing. Record your progress toward your writing goals over the course of a week, including how many times you succumbed to tiny distractions like checking email or Facebook.

New to meditation? Here are five easy steps to get you started:

1.   Get comfortable. Find a position you can maintain for five minutes without getting sore or losing circulation.

2.   Set a timer for five minutes and close your eyes.

3.   Bring your attention to your breath. Say the words “inhale” and “exhale” in your mind as you take each breath.

4.   As other thoughts begin to invade (and they will), calmly return to thinking about your breath. The key is to remain objective as you notice the distraction and refocus.

5.   If you get tired of saying “inhale” and “exhale” to yourself over and over, try focusing on your breathing through what yogis call the three-part breath: first, fill your belly and lower abdomen with air. Then, on the next breath, fill your chest as well. Focus on the sensation of your ribs expanding. Finally, feel your collarbone and shoulders lift as your whole torso fills with the third breath. Repeat to your heart’s content.

Ready to try a longer practice? Try the guided meditation exercise available as an mp3 on McGonigal’s website.

You may feel discouraged if — or, more realistically, when — you still find yourself distracted and off-task despite your daily meditation. Try to take the long view. After all, you wouldn’t expect overnight success if you decided to lose 10 pounds and train for a 5k after not having exercised all winter. Your brain, like the rest of your body, needs time to get into shape.

Daily meditation won’t work miracles, but it will hone your focus and willpower, which is exactly what you need to hit your word count goals.

Do you meditate? How do you find it affects your writing?