How Writers Can Use Meditation to Build Focus and Productivity

How Writers Can Use Meditation to Build Focus and Productivity

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?

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18 comments

  • Lynn Silva says:

    Hi Jaclyn! : )

    Last November, I started doing a relaxation technique that Laura Leigh Clark teaches on Wire Yourself For Wealth. It’s a combination of patterned breathing and releasing. It really helped my stress level, but when I think about it, my focus started improving about the time I started with her relaxation techniques as well.

    I love the information you included about the prefrontal cortex and used the analogy of exercise! My self-discipline has greatly increased in the last few months and now I know why!

    Great article! Thanks so much! : )

  • faye rivkin says:

    Yoga is one thing…meditation, completely different. I’ve always thought that my brain moves too fast for meditation, . but i’m willing to give it another try. this rain is the perfect opportunity to try it again. \nice piece!

    • Jaclyn says:

      It is SUCH a challenge for me sometimes, and I definitely have days where the majority of my meditation practice is spent on totally uncontrolled ping-pong trains of thought. When my husband made me read The Willpower Instinct, I had a light bulb moment: it’s not about being “good” at it, it’s about the process 🙂

  • julie says:

    Jaclyn, This is an excellent post. I used to teach chakra meditations, and find being in a meditative state very useful for all areas of my life.

    It’s a wonderful tool to master, and can be done anywhere, and in response to Faye, no matter how logical or fast your brain, it can be trained.

    Mediation allows you step back from ‘yourself’ and look at things from a different perspective. The ego stops getting in the way, and the ‘real’ you comes out to play, and is able to have an opinion.

    Again, great post.

    • Jaclyn says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! I’ve only really done the breath mindfulness meditation, but am intrigued by what you’ve described here. Do you have any further resources to share?

  • Nancy says:

    Thanks for this interesting post, Jaclyn. I started a regular meditation practice for my New Year’s resolution. I resolved to meditate 10 minutes a day but once I get myself to sit, I often find that I am happy to put in more time.

    I loaded a meditation app on my IPad and have found it very useful to keep my commitment. I set the app to chime every ten minutes when I meditate so I feel less antsy and don’t get anxious wondering how much time is passing. I recently upgraded to the paid version, which allows me to log all my meditation sessions. It can give me a report of how many days I’ve meditated, average time time of meditation, etc., which is motivating.

    I would add to your comments about the benefits of meditation that it greatly enhances one’s sense of well-being. With just 10 minutes a day, I feel happier and less irritable.

    Thanks!

    • Jaclyn says:

      That’s great! A previous commenter mentioned a client with ADHD, and irritability can be a huge for those of us who suffer from it. Meditation definitely helps!

  • Josh says:

    Great post! I’d never think to recommend it to someone else, but it’s something I’ve done every day for longer than I can remember. I prefer to take a little time in the morning to sit and meditate on things I need to do that day, how I plan to do them, etc. It’s extremely helpful and keeps me from being stressed out. I know what’s coming, I’ve decided how to deal with it, and so everything moves smoothly throughout the day.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Hugh Smith says:

    You’re right on target with this Jaclyn, I began a meditation practice recently and it already has borne fruit in terms of increased mindfulness. It’s something that’s now incorporated into my daily life. Thanks for the great post.

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