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Posts Tagged ‘focus’

I am reblogging a post that I wrote in 2010 based on the advice to a would-be writer in Muriel Spark’s novel “A Far Cry from Kensington”: “To focus, get a cat.” I love cats, but sadly have none at the moment. On occasion, our adult daughter has brought her magnificent, marvelous cat with her for a weekend visit. A cat can transform for the better the mood, and even the level of thought, within a house. Here is my blog from 2010: “To focus on your writing, get a cat.”

Successful Writing Tips

Cat mosaic on house façade, Brussels, Belgium,...

Can’t concentrate?  Having trouble getting into flow with your writing?  Get a cat!

Advice to writers can come from the most interesting places.  An unexpected, but most entertaining source of advice is A Far Cry from Kensington, a novel by British writer Muriel Spark

A Far Cry takes place in 1954 London.  Mrs. Hawkins, the narrator, has a job in publishing.  And yes, it is she who offers the acutely insightful advice that if you can’t concentrate, get a cat.

In a hilarious dinner party scene, Mrs. Hawkins is seated by a red-faced, watery-eyed Brigadier, who, in response to her question about his having had an interesting life, replies, “Could write a book.”  He hasn’t because he hasn’t been able to concentrate.  

Mrs. Hawkins tells him that to concentrate, “you need a cat”:

Alone with a cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get up on your desk…

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“Severe storms forecast for region.” “Forecasters say large hail, damaging winds and tornadoes are possible.”

Living the first 24 years of my life in the American Midwest gave me a healthy respect for storms and especially for tornadoes. The tiny town where my grandmother grew up was leveled by such a storm and that storm is now part of a frequently repeated family story.

When I moved to the East Coast, I thought or hoped that I was out of the reach of such storms, but such is not the case.

We’ve had many bad storms in the Washington, DC area, but last summer’s derecho, a straight-line wind storm, dealt a particularly strong blow to much of our area. Today another derecho or some type of severe storm is on its way.

Many local people are preparing for the strong possibility of an extended power outage by buying a generator. Others are stock up on ice for coolers. One dissertation coaching client told me this morning that she is concerned by the shelter-in-place plans at her place of work and is thinking through alternative locations.

Such a storm gives us the opportunity to decide where we need to place our focus for a specific situation. For instance, we can use what we have learned from past experience with storms as well as what others who have been hit recently by bad storms have advised.

Choosing an appropriate focus gives us the chance to

— recall what we have learned from past experiences,

— clarify our choices,

— make use of the strengths and skills best suited to a chosen focus,

—and be in the moment.

Whether you are writing a dissertation, encountering daily stress in your workplace, or dealing with an on-coming wind storm, the way you focus your attention is critical.

What do you think is critical to your successfully navigating a dangerous storm, whether that storm is literal or figurative?

And if the storm peters out? That’s the best you could have hoped for.  Plus, you have gained practice and muscle for the next big thing.

All good wishes to you,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC

Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach

www.nancywhichard.com

www.smarttipsforwriters.com

www.successfuldissertationwriting.com

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A giant construction project disrupts the lives and the commute of many people who use the Washington DC (or Capital)  Beltway and the business routes between the Beltway and the Dulles International Airport.

 

This same construction project also raises hope among many travelers that one day they can take the metro the full 30 miles or so from downtown Washington, D.C. to Dulles Airport for an international flight.  In addition, the beltway will have “hot lanes” which will allow people willing to pay a hefty toll to drive in the faster lanes and to escape the punishing daily gridlock.

 

The Chaos of Construction

The construction is on a huge scale—where nothing looks like it used to, no trees line the roads, exits from the beltway are changed, intersecting concrete roads start and stop abruptly, bridges are gone, new bridges emerge in an unexpected place, and everywhere there are train tracks.

 

While many people might think this project is without parallel, to me it suggests another kind of herculean project, particularly those of the mind and will.

If you are writing a dissertation or another seemingly endless writing project, you see the resemblance.

 

The Chaos  . . .  and Cost  . . .  of Writing a Dissertation

As the costs mount for the Dulles Airport metro, municipalities and individuals dispute the wisdom of continuing to build all 23 miles of subway to the airport. The different authorities involved have wrangled over whether the subway should be above ground or below ground and which municipalities should contribute more money and less money. Similarly, the personal and financial costs involved in writing a dissertation may seem to you as if you’ll never get out from under them. And you wonder how completing the dissertation could be worth the huge burden you have taken on.

 

Showing Up Takes Mental Toughness and Planning

Not unlike the way you wrangle with texts and structure, trying to trace ideas through various pathways in your brain, returning day after day to an uncomfortable task that demands almost more than you can do, the workers in the beltway/Dulles metro construction zone labor on crazy flyover bridges high in the sky over what will be eight lanes of the DC Beltway.

The workers labor at road level, between lanes of traffic, on cranes, and on concrete piers.  Below ground workers construct enormous tunnels.

Just like the worker in the construction zone, for you to return each day to a challenging, messy dissertation requires you to draw on your mental toughness and willpower. It takes grit to show up each day to work on a grueling writing project, with no end in sight, knowing that only occasionally will you find joy in the doing. What you know is that you have to keep your wits about you. And what you can count on is that you will find joy in having stuck with the project to its end.

Beyond the Beltway and the Tysons Corner area of Virginia where several new metro stations are being built, the work gradually slows. This is not yet the construction zone, but the plan is in place.  Huge piles of stacked materials are staged for future work. The plan anticipates that the metro construction will reach this point and keep going. 

The staged materials are evidence that a plan is in place. If workers show up each day and do their exhausting, demanding tasks, according to the plan, the job will proceed toward its end point, that is, its destination — Dulles International Airport.

What is more inspiring than anticipating what it will be like when this seemingly endless writing project is finished? What you anticipate feeling after you have traveled the long road to the Ph.D. is what the people committed to building the Metrorail to Dulles and the hot lanes on the beltway anticipate feeling when they see a completed project.

 

That Transcendent Feeling of Completion

Today, I drove toward Dulles Airport, the final destination for the Metro. As the iconic Dulles Main Terminal with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background came into view, I felt some of that same excitement that finishing huge writing projects brings forth—that transcendent feeling of completion and a new beginning.

 

And that transcendent feeling of completion and new beginning is what I wish for you in this New Year of big writing projects. 

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.nancywhichard.com
nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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The New Year at its most powerful is a time for reflection and a time to think about where you want to put your focus.  The holidays are often jam-packed with travel, planning, buying, eating, interacting, negotiating, and not much quiet time. The first week of the New Year may reveal that it’s harder to focus than you had thought it was.

On the first coaching day of the New Year among those dissertation coaching clients who showed up as expected, I also had a client show up unexpectedly—she had forgotten that she wanted to start a week later. On subsequent days the schedules of a couple more clients unexpectedly conflicted with their coaching calls. The first day or so of starting a new schedule or returning to a routine after a busy holiday can make for a bumpy ride and a feeling of loss of control.

While my holiday began with the usual hurry-hurry pace, by Christmas Day I had moved into the best part of the holiday–the familiar gift exchanges, special meals, and the less familiar travel to a new home of a loved one.

The most different part of my Christmas holiday was going with my whole family to Manhattan on Christmas Monday. The crowds both at Macy’s at Herald Square and at Rockefeller Center skating rink and Christmas tree were enormous, but fun, jolly, and relaxed. We joined the cold-night sauntering of the crowds down Fifth Avenue, oohing and ahhing over the window displays at Tiffany and Bergdorf Goodman and the light shows and illuminations on the tall buildings.

Celebrating the holiday with my family and also with this huge, unhurried crowd of friendly strangers heavily bundled against the night’s cold was not only relaxing, but it was also a way to reset my frequently frenzied focus. I could concentrate on what was there to be seen and to be experienced. I lost myself in the moment, enjoying the city at its most beautiful. 

Having those few hours not only to be unplugged, but also to feel transported and intensely engaged in a sensory, beautiful experience gave me the pause I needed to come back to my work with a desire to improve my level of focus and concentration.

To help me sharpen my focus in this New Year, I’m giving myself time each day to pause. I’m setting aside an hour each day where I have the choice on where to place my focus.

I also realize how much I need to have experiences of beauty and wonder in my life. Reading has always given me those kinds of experiences, but increasingly my reading is for my work or has chosen by someone else. Recently I happened to read Téa Obreht wonderful novel The Tiger’s Wife, which created a world that beckoned me to re-engage for days and weeks to unravel webs of images and secrets and relationships.

Knowing that I’m better in many ways–focus, concentration, motivation– if I’m reading a novel that engages me and asks something of me, I’m also giving myself permission to spend some time looking for such novel to read each month—one that engages me and could very likely leave me awestruck

What do you need to have in your life in this New Year? Do you also need something that will boost your focus and concentration in 2012?  I’d love to hear what you think.

All good wishes to you for 2012,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC

Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach

http://www.smarttipsforwriters.com

http://www.dissertationbootcamp.net

http://www.nancywhichard.com

nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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Getting more sleep is high on the Wish List, if not the To-Do list, of most dissertation writers.

And so it is with me.

I always mean to go to bed earlier than I do, and I have all sorts of reasons for what keeps me up, some good, others not so much.

As I argued in “Sleep on It,” a tired brain doesn’t give you your best ideas, so why not go to bed and let your brain expand, develop, play with what you have given it? Your writing process needs that down time so that your brain can add its unique perspective to what you’ve just written.

I may watch BBC World News at midnight, and I may make some notes to think about in the morning, but I don’t trust my critical thinking and judgment after a certain hour. 

To supplement my nightly sleep I would love to take a short nap at 4 pm, but the late afternoon time isn’t my own. 

However, maybe I should take back that time. 

The National Sleep Foundation advocates a 20- minute nap in the mid-morning or mid- afternoon to sharpen focus and productivity. And it’s important to limit the nap to 20 to 30 minutes. 

And if you need additional reasons to nap, a mid-day nap also helps your metabolism (did I hear “slim”?).

If you receive the wonderful and free daily INSIDE HIGHER ED   and/or TOMORROW’S PROFESSOR newsletter, you saw “Turn Your Zzz’s Into A’s.” 

 In that article, Allie Grasgreen writes about The University of California at Davis’s systematic endeavor to encourage students to nap.  The school sells packets with earplugs and an eye mask and offers a “nap map” for good places to nap.

I swear by my five- minute nap, which I can take just about anywhere (except when I’m driving or talking on the phone, of course), but a 20-minute nap does sound appealing, don’t you think? 

Could you fit in a short mid-afternoon nap to improve your focus and productivity?  There are all sorts of barriers we could bring up, but really, how hard would it be?  And what’s 20 minutes versus improved focus and productivity.  Aren’t they priceless?

My best to you,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
http://www.smarttipsforwriters.com
http://www.dissertationbootcamp.net
nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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Cat mosaic on house façade, Brussels, Belgium,...

Image by historic.brussels via Flickr

Can’t concentrate?  Having trouble getting into flow with your writing?  Get a cat!

Advice to writers can come from the most interesting places.  An unexpected, but most entertaining source of advice is A Far Cry from Kensington, a novel by British writer Muriel Spark

A Far Cry takes place in 1954 London.  Mrs. Hawkins, the narrator, has a job in publishing.  And yes, it is she who offers the acutely insightful advice that if you can’t concentrate, get a cat.

In a hilarious dinner party scene, Mrs. Hawkins is seated by a red-faced, watery-eyed Brigadier, who, in response to her question about his having had an interesting life, replies, “Could write a book.”  He hasn’t because he hasn’t been able to concentrate.  

Mrs. Hawkins tells him that to concentrate, “you need a cat”:

Alone with a cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp.  .  .  .  The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding.  And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. 

Spark is saying in her engaging style that to regain the self-discipline and focus you need to write, let go of the negative, chattering voices in your mind and all of the endless responsibilities calling to you. 

Occasionally my dissertation coaching clients speak of the quieting influence of their pets.

Unfortunately, in Spark’s novel, the narrator informs us that  the Brigadier’s writing fails.  Mrs. Hawkins says,  “I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.”

Mrs. Hawkins freely gives her wise advice to other would-be writers. She tells writers to have in mind a particular person who will be your reader.  

What you have to say will come out more spontaneously and honestly than if you are thinking of numerous readers.  Before starting . . .  rehearse in your mind what you are going to tell . . . . But don’t rehearse too much, the story will develop as you go along.

Working toward discovery and trusting a process –both in life and in writing– are strong themes in the book.

Life isn’t fair, of course, and trusting the process does not always lead to exemplary writing or to published works, as evidenced by the novel’s depiction of many questionable publishers and of less than stellar writers who do get published.

But we can take pleasure in Muriel Spark’s esteem for honest, hard-working writers, as well as her undisguised contempt for the undeserving who sometimes receive  their just rewards.

As a writer, have you found good or interesting advice from an unexpected source?  I would love to hear from you.

All good wishes,

Nancy

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation and Academic Career Coach
nancy@nancywhichard.com
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.usingyourstrengths.com
www.smarttipsforwriters.com

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Do Something That Scares You Every Day

How do you keep focused on your writing goal?  Our Lizard Brains can make it all too easy to let a goal slip, and with each deadline or marker you miss, it’s that much longer before you finish your dissertation.

FutureMe at www.futureme.org is a helpful tool for accountability as you write your dissertation.  

You can send an email to your future self anywhere from one month to 30 years or more in the future.  But let’s not think about 30 years from now! 

Let’s talk about your short-term goals.

Here’s my request– write an email to yourself to be delivered close to the time of your next deadline or short-term goal (and I’m hoping that deadline is within the next 6 weeks).  Write in that email the specifics that you have in place that will make hitting that deadline a cinch. 

 Make sure that you include in the email the distractions you must say no to if you are to reach your writing goal.

 When your Future Self receives this email, it will be cause for celebration.  You have stuck to your plan, and the email is a pat on the back for you.

 Such things as FutureMe are great ways to help you stay on track.

 Another way to keep you accountable is to hire a dissertation coach. 

 The more frequently you check up on yourself and the more importance you attach to doing what you said you would do, the sooner the diss will be over and done with.

How are you doing with accountability?  Need some help with that?  I’d love to hear from you.

All good wishes,

 Nancy

 Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation and Academic Career Coach
nancy@nancywhichard.com
www.dissertationbootcamp.net
www.usingyourstrengths.com
www.smarttipsforwriters.com

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