Focus on Failure


Rarely will I decline a challenge, especially if that challenge involves something I want to do anyway. On our drive home from the Ozarks Writers League meeting over the weekend, Steve challenged me to do my own NaNoWriMo. Now. Not in November, when the national event takes place. This basically means committing to writing 1667 words per day for the next month.

I agreed to the challenge, with the following caveats:

  1. I’d start today, Monday, 5/18.
  2. I’d do it six days a week. This gives me a day off for any emergencies that might arise.
  3. I’ll do it until June 10, when family will start to arrive from out of town for my sister’s wedding.

Will I have the willpower to achieve this goal? Coincidentally, I recently watched a video on willpower by psychologist, Kelly McGonigal and author of The Willpower Instinct. One of the many interesting things she discussed was that in trying to achieve goals, we should focus on the things that cause may us to fail.

The entire video is interesting, but if you want to see the segment on focusing on failure, go to time stamp 35:30.

McGonigal suggests we ask ourselves, “What will be the obstacles to my success?”

Here are mine, in order of potency of distraction:

  1. Social media–Facebook, emails, texts
  2. Requests by others for my time
  3. Writer’s block

The big, big, big one, and the one that always contributes to my word count failure, is social media. How about you?

Now that we know the negative impact of social media, click HERE to read an excellent Time article on why social media affects our success. It’s titled “Are My Devices Messing with My Brain?” Here are a few excerpts:

  • Combine that sudden beep [ie Facebook alert, incoming text or email] with the implicit promise of new social info, and you have a near-perfect, un-ignorable stimulus that will pull your focus away from whatever task your brain is working on.

  • “Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch-cost,” says Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.”

  • One recent study found it can take your brain 15 to 25 minutes to get back to where it was after stopping to check an email.

  • “You’re not able to think as deeply on something when you’re being distracted every few minutes,” Miller adds. “And thinking deeply is where real insights come from.”

In fact, the “beep” notification of Facebook and incoming emails has distracted me twice while writing this post on obstacles to success!

So, my solution to overcoming all three obstacles during my personal NaNoWriMo session is to remove all social media distractions each day until I accomplish my goal of 1667 words. This means:

  • Logging out of Facebook and Gmail until I accomplish my daily word count. (I need to keep wireless on due to necessary research.)
  • Placing my iPhone somewhere far, far away. This way, I won’t hear texts, yet I will hear any incoming phone calls, which typically is how I get notified of emergencies, since most everyone texts non-emergency greetings these days!

Both of these should help me also with obstacle #3, writer’s block, since, according to Dr. Earl Miller above, social media distractions prevent me from “gaining insights” and “thinking deeply.”

And, if you’re interested, here are a few other interesting little tidbits on your prefrontal cortex:

Dr. Paul Atchley, cognitive psychologist at Kansas University says in the Time article referenced above:

“…more research suggests lots of device use bombards your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in willpower and decision-making.

According to Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist at Stanford University (YouTube video and via Wikipedia):

The part of the self that enables us to act in a way that is consistent with our long-term goals is based in the prefrontal cortex, and McGonigal advocates body-mind practices that she says prioritize the function of the prefrontal cortex, rather than parts of the brain that are orientated toward instant responses, which is the brain’s default setting when under stress.

Not only is social media a hindrance to the quantity of my writing and especially to my long term goal of finishing the sequel to The Red Kimono, it also impacts the quality of any words I DO manage to get written.

So, starting today, I’m signing off of social media until I attain my word count. I hope to be back in the evenings, but if not, you’ll know I didn’t make my goal for the day.

Feel free to offer kudos or boos as appropriate. 🙂

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7 Responses to Focus on Failure

  1. Beth Carter says:

    Social media is my Achilles heel, too. It’s very distracting, yet I can’t ignore the beeps and and updates. Funny you said you’ll hide your phone because that’s exactly what I have to do. It’s pitiful. Good luck, Jan, and thanks for the insight, references, and push!


  2. ruthie says:

    Come on, Gypsy Jan! You can win this challenge.


  3. Social media is my downfall, too. That’s why I have two computers. This one has internet access and I TRY to stay away from it every day until after I meet my daily word goal on the old computer in the other room. It has no internet access, but is still a dandy machine for Word, Scrivner, and my desktop Write or Die program.


  4. frog5 says:

    Sorry to learn Broken Dreams is giving you more trouble than Broken Dolls did, but the news is not unexpected. Your life has received numerous jolts since 2011-2012 when your writing flowed easiest. Your writing environment–with which your responses were intimately associated–has changed drastically.

    In any case, second novels are notoriously difficult birthing. Despair not; you have lots of fellow-writer company.

    My advice would be to reconstitute, insofar as possible, the conditions that obtained while you were writing Broken Dolls. For instance, try to find a writing group that meets weekly to critique a five-page, double-spaced MS just like NWA Writers did. Ideally the members would be approximately of your skill level.

    Also arrange your office furniture as before, same feng shui, writing schedule, diet, TV watching. Et cetera.

    You could even regress yourself back to the 2011-2012 period using self-hypnosis techniques as described in the Jack Finney novel:

    Time and Again (novel) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

    Twelve hundred fifty words a week doesn’t sound like much, but in two years could produce your novel while still allowing time for family and leisure. Beware what behavioral psychologists call “straining the ratio”: setting the daily word goal too high. That can produce frustration and negative emotion which attaches to the writing itself (blocking).

    So take it easy, relax, and enjoy! Maybe indulge in a little social media. 😉


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