Generating Ideas And Improving Focus By Turning Off The Noise

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During the last few weeks of the school year, I allowed students to design their own writing prompts or final projects. Soon enough, some students furiously pecked away at keyboards or scribbled on lined paper, while other kids were absolutely stuck, bogged down with indecision, digital distraction, or plain old apathy.

“Mr. B, it’s so much easier if you tell me what to write,” I heard on multiple occasions–the freedom of choice was paralyzing a surprising amount of students.

As teacher writers (or for those of you ready to give it a shot), we have ultimate choice. Should we write about classroom management, assessment, or collaboration? Should we write for a local audience or strive to address educators around the world?  Should we portray ourselves as vulnerable or write with a more detached, impersonal tone?

The writing process varies greatly for each of us–as it should–but for me, I only end up being in a position to make choices about what I write if I allow myself time to turn off the noise from the daily bombardment of personal and professional chores and tasks.

The bottom line is this: a quieter mind allows room for new ideas to emerge and simmer, giving one the initial material to launch into writing. Then if you’ve got the ideas, it’s all about carving out focused periods of time to produce.

Writing in The New York Times magazine, Dan Hurley explains the benefits of daydreaming (creativity) and mindfulness practice (focus/attention), both of which can be beneficial to the writing process.

For me, it’s turning off the radio and decompressing, reflecting, and refreshing myself during a 25-minute commute home everyday. The relative silence of the ride has often led to much daydreaming and ideas about my own teaching practice that may be worthy to share. When I get home, I’ll use the voice memo or notes function on my phone to save key points. Then when I’m inspired, I’ll start drafting, knowing that I can return to a repository of ideas.

For you, daydreaming may entail taking a walk, exercising, or weeding the garden, ostensibly taking your mind off your professional challenges. What matters most and you’re itching to say can float to the surface just when you least expect it.

For me, honing my ability to focus means dedicating myself to 15-minute mindful meditation practice most days of the week. It’s not easy, but I’ve found that the more relaxed and “in the present” I am, I’m better able to think more deeply about issues that matter most to me, even if there are other things on my “to-do” list.  I know it seems cliche–the whole “in the present” bit–but the effort is worth it. Taking the step from simply having an idea to producing a substantial bit of writing is nearly impossible when distractions abound.

For you, developing the focus to write for longer periods of time may not mean dedicated mindfulness practice, but it could be simply being more aware of your attention, closing extra internet browsing windows and turning off your phone, or being regimented in setting aside a time of day to write.

So if you’re stuck with idea generation or find yourself struggling to carve out dedicated time for writing, don’t be afraid to slow down, daydream, and become aware of your attention. You may find yourself in position to take the leap to publishing your thoughts, and we can’t wait to read them.

Bloggers and future bloggers: where do your ideas come from? When do they strike? Do you practice anything similar to my own approach?

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  • LaurenStephenson

    Always with notebook in hand


    These are great suggestions. I both can and can’t relate– it depends on the day! Sometimes I get great ideas when I’m in a crowd. Other times when I’m writing or editing or brainstorming, I need complete silence.

    But I’ve found one tool that helps me immensely is always having a pocket-sized notebook on hand. I can jot down any ideas that come to mind no matter where I am.

    Do you make use of one?


  • misstori

    Even Comedians Take Notes

    Comedienne and actress Melissa McCarthy has been making the press junket rounds recently and on several occassions described the writing process that she and husband Ben use. McCarthy has small children at home and apparently it is no place for writing to happen.  You can hear them describe their solution at 2:45 minutes into this video interview from CBS This Morning:

    While nowhere near as famous (or rich) as McCarthy, I find myself scrawling on napkins or gas station receipts.  I really should have a better system in place, but it works so why mess with it?