One blazingly hot day in July I traveled from central New Jersey to New York City for an appointment with an ADHD specialist and was promptly diagnosed with the disorder—at age 50. Suddenly my lifelong struggle to stay focused, among other things, all made sense. I left the office with a prescription and a deep sense of relief.
The formal diagnosis helped me better understand myself, and the meds made it easier to focus. What I came to realize, however, is that the increased ability to focus was no guarantee I would focus on the right things at the right time (client work vs. internet surfing, for example).
What made that possible over many decades (pre-diagnosis), and what makes it possible in today’s challenging times, are a series of “structures” I created to keep me on track.
A structure is ADHD-speak for a specific routine. Routines have helped me build a successful freelance nonfiction editing business, both before and after my diagnosis, with and without medication.
My structures—I have seven—are what allow me to keep showing up at the page and producing for my nonfiction authors—no matter what else is going on. And you can bet I’m doubling down on my structures right now because they make it possible to consistently get work out despite everything else that’s going on in the world.
You may not have ADHD, but you might feel like you do right now because of the extra stress and anxiety of these difficult times. Anxiety and stress are focus killers.
My structures—aka routines—help me mitigate these feelings and reclaim my productivity and sense of well-being. Caveat: I do not do all of these perfectly, ever. Rather they are my North Star, a course of action I return to again and again because it always helps me regain my equilibrium. I hope it will help you do the same.
The Seven Structures
The seven structures I use fall into two categories:
2. Focus management
Let’s start with self-care, because the self-care structures help ensure that you have the energy you need to execute the focus-management structures.
Self-care is about creating an internal environment that lends itself to a focused state. For me, it comes down to these three things: eating clean, sleeping enough, and moving my body.
Note: The following self-care structures are based on what works for me and my degree of health and fitness. Please consult your healthcare provider before implementing any of these self-care strategies.
1. Eating Clean
Let me just get this out there. I love salad and vegetables but hate having to eat healthy. I love all carbohydrates. I’m a scratch baker. I also love sugar, especially candy bars and soda. (Coke, no Pepsi.) This means I am woefully inconsistent about this structure. The key is I always go back to it.
In my perfect world I’d be consuming very little flour or refined sugar, keeping the carbs under 25–30 grams per day, and going easy on the red wine at night. My body knows what it wants, and it is not buying any of my BS excuses!
Eating junk relieves my anxiety for a minute (why else would I do it?), but I pay later with brain fog and achy joints. I’ve also noticed it’s cumulative. Sometimes it takes a day or two to clean my system out, but once I get through it my head clears and I feel better. Maybe one of these days the habit will stick, but until then it’s a matter of making it OK to start over—again and again.
2. Sleeping Enough
Nowadays, I’m always in bed early, by 9:00 p.m. at the latest. If I’m eating junk, eating too late, or ingesting too much caffeine, I wake up every half hour and flop around like a mackerel. Then I’m a wreck the next day, which makes it hard to focus.
I also sleep better if I leave my phone downstairs at night so I don’t check it every two hours, but like most of society I’m addicted so I regularly fail to adhere to this restriction.
My compromise is sticking to ASMR-type videos in the evening, such as trail cams and people explaining or demonstrating things. Yes, I’ve fallen asleep with my phone in my hand. Keyword: asleep. Don’t know about ASMR? Read about it here:
3. Moving My Body
I am most focused when I get out in the morning and run/walk a mile before starting work. There is something about getting a lot of air in my lungs and the way my feet strike the pavement and shake my body that clears out the cobwebs.
In case you wondered, I am the world’s dorkiest-looking runner. A better description of what I do would be shuffling. I also walk a lot in between. I don’t care. Dorky running/walking does the trick for me. If you want an example of a good run/walk approach, check out the Galloway Method.
Note: Running is not the only way to achieve this goal, so do what works for you. I like running because I like the sense of moving through space and I find it really efficient.
Be gentle with yourself! Some of us are quarantining alone and climbing the walls. Others have been cooped up with our partners for weeks on end with no break. It’s hard!
To that end, strong emotions expressed by others also can really compromise some people’s ability to concentrate. (I’m one of them.) Eating clean, sleeping enough, and moving my body creates a buffer and helps me recover faster.
Now that you know about the three self-care structures, let’s look at the four focus-management structures that run on them.
4. Write First Thing
Think of your brain (executive function) as a bank account that gets reloaded every night. The more you eat right, sleep, and move, the bigger the deposit that gets made. Everything you pay attention to is literally going to suck “money” out of your brain account. The more taxing the project is on your brain, the bigger the withdrawal.
That’s why when I’m working on a book, it owns the first three hours of my day. I have coffee, go for a run, take a shower, and get dressed. Then I set a timer, open the document and go. No checking email, no phone calls or meetings. I’ve done it this way for years, and I’m still stunned at the amount of progress I can make with a fresh brain. And conversely, how much more effort it takes to produce the same amount of quality work if I wait until later in the day.
When the bell rings, I close the document, forget about working on that project, and get on with my day (guilt free) because I did what I said I was going to do.
5. Adopt a 50-Minute Hour
If you are doing the three-hours-of-writing-first-thing thing, you’ll want to break that time into three one-hour blocks. Set a timer for 50 minutes and write. Do not let yourself stop. You will get distracted and look up. Still got 20 minutes? Go back to work. 10 minutes? Keep going. Keep bringing yourself back to the task at hand until the bell rings. (Note: As you can imagine, this is all way easier if you are not food-fogged, underslept, etc.)
When the bell rings, get up and walk around for 10 minutes. Don’t check email or surf the internet. Get up and walk around. Drink a glass of water. Wash your hands in cold water. Then put your head back down and do another 50-minute round.
6. Embrace Discomfort
If I’m eating right, sleeping well, and moving enough, the 50-minute hour is usually not too hard to get through. Still, some hours will take more effort than others, especially if I’m tackling something I haven’t done before. Sometimes you just have to gut it out and do whatever it takes to get to the finish line (in this case, the end of the third 50-minute block).
On those days, when it’s just hard and I don’t get as much done as I wanted, I celebrate the fact that I powered through and did what I said I was going to do. My brain takes notice and the level of resistance tends to decrease the next time since it knows I’m not going to give up.
Another thing that really helps me is focusatwill.com, a site that provides scientifically designed music to improve concentration. Listening to Classical Plus on focusatwill.com has saved my bacon many times. Check it out.
7. Plan Your Week
I always sketch out what my week is going to look like ahead of time, using one-hour blocks. I keep a master list of things that need doing and select five things that I think must get done that week. Sometimes five turns out to be too ambitious, but the only way I can determine that is to go through the exercise of blocking out time for them on my calendar.
Come Monday morning, I open my calendar and do what it says. Without this structure, my brain has a chance to say, “Ugh. I don’t really feel like doing that.” If it’s a block on my calendar, I’m in charge and the self-talk becomes, “I get that you’re bored/ tired/don’t wanna/would rather look at YouTube—but right now we are doing this.”
For example, I have a book project going right now so the first three hours have three one-hour blocks with my book client’s initials in them. I give myself an hour for lunch. After lunch comes four more one-hour blocks that are either assigned to a different client or something I need to do for the business.
The one-hour blocks are great because if I need to rearrange my schedule it’s a lot easier to move a one-hour block around than it is to move a giant three-hour block. I also color-code the blocks (blue is billable client hours, pink is billable client meetings, orange is admin, yellow is non-client calls, red is new business related, purple is writing my own stuff, etc.). This allows me to scan the week and make sure I’m focused on client work and not filling up my calendar with too many non-billable activities.
Pure execution is what makes this work. I do what’s on my calendar. This keeps me from wasting time rethinking things that have already been decided. Sometimes I’ll need to push a block to the next day or later in the week, but I try to let external forces dictate those changes—e.g., a client needs a meeting at a specific time—rather than giving in to the urge to drift.
At the end of the week, Monday through Thursday should be a sea of blue and pink. (Friday is my work-on-business day, so those blocks should be mostly orange and red.)
What I shouldn’t see is a lot of white space. White space means I either moved or deleted blocks and I have no idea what happened during that time. It means I drifted. Tons of white space on my calendar is also a flag because it means my focus-management structures are not holding and I need to go back and double down on my self-care structures.
Our success as nonfiction writers hinges on our ability to focus and express and sequence concepts in a clear, concise manner. This is hard work in the best of times and even more challenging at a time when our brains are occupied with coping with a crisis (such as surviving a novel coronavirus!).
That’s why it’s so important to do whatever is required to optimize your health and minimize the cognitive load on your brain with structures (aka routines). Self-care and focus management help ensure you’ve got enough gas in the tank to get the work out and into the world, a world that needs your work and wisdom—now more than ever.
Helena Bouchez is a New-Jersey based book strategist and co-writer who works primarily with CEOs, entrepreneurs, and subject matter experts, specializing in nonfiction general business, marketing, information technology, and marketing technology. Her super power is getting the book out of your head and into the world—with a minimum of effort on your part. She is currently working on a book about the history of foods and beverages she grew up with in Michigan and Ohio. Connect with Helena on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/helenabouchez or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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