Thursday, 5 February 2015

Oh where oh where did my concentration go?

I used to be really good at concentrating. I used to be able to give myself a task and set my mind to it, and then spend a good period of concentrated time, focussing on the task and nothing else.

When I used to write, I could often go for several hours. I could easily knock out well over a thousand words in a session, and often twice as much. To be honest, anything below 1500 would really be regarded as sub-par.

Similarly so for when I used to read a lot. I could spend hours lost in a good book. Seems like I never had trouble spending a whole day, happily relaxed on a couch and lost in the plot.

These days, things are really different. Whenever I do devote some time to a book, I always find myself getting impatient. I always want to jump ahead to see what happens next, rather than be content to find things out when it's time to find them out. Sometimes, I even (shock horror) don't get around to actually finishing the book.

When it comes to writing, things are even worse. Gone are those marathon sessions when I could churn out several thousand words. These days, a good writing session is (sob) 500 words. That's right, a mere 500. And even that seems like a battle. I'm constantly checking word counts, to see if I've reached that magical number. Maybe I'll rearrange a sentence to make it a bit wordier, just so I can up the count. And when I do get to my 500 for the day, it's always with a great sense of relief that I save the document and shut it down. Look at me. I've achieved my writing goal. It may be kind of puny, but at least I've achieved something.

I'm not even sure who I'm supposed to blame for this sad loss of concentration. Is it because I'm getting older, and my brain finds it harder to focus on things for extended lengths of time? Is it the stress of my work, which forces me to spend most of my day on a computer, thus dramatically reducing my tolerance for off-work screen time? Is it family, and the constant distraction it brings? Is it the internet, with its whirl of redundant information constantly being thrown in my face? Or is it simply the stress of dealing with modern life, with all its complexities?

Whatever it is, it can be damn frustrating. I yearn for the old days, when I was able to get so much done, and writing wasn't a battle to steal short snippets of time.

In the meantime, I think I've spent long enough writing this post, so goodbye.


  1. Hey Jonathan! I think that lack of concentration comes from the ever-shortening time suck we feel as our lives move forward. The longer we've lived, the shorter each day feels.

    That's okay though!

    Hemingway wrote 500 words a day and it seemed to work out just fine for him. 500 x 365 = 182,500 after all.

  2. I know the feeling. If my day got any shorter, I'd barely have time for waking up.

  3. Limitations. Gotta… Nope, there’s nothing loveable about them. I hate not being as young as I used to be. I’m probably not as young as I used to be because of how I used to be if I’m being honest. I’m certainly older than I should be and, again, I blame that on my younger self for not knowing when to call it a night. It started when I was a teenager. I’d get caught up in some project and the next thing I knew it was the wee hours and didn’t I have to get up for school in a few hours? I’ve always resented sleep. Complete waste of time. I know it’s not. I know all the good things the doctors tell me happen when I’m sleeping and how I wouldn’t be able to function for more than maybe three or four days without sleeping but I’ve always imagined I could get so much more done if I didn’t have to waste time lying down. I loved the whole idea of subliminal learning tapes, a way to claw back time. No idea if they work—they probably don’t—but great idea. Anyway the bottom line is that I pretty much abused by body for thirty years straight and I’m paying the price now. It wasn’t drugs or drink or wild parties. It was work and mostly unpaid work at that. But it was me sitting at a desk in front of a jotter or a drawing board or a typewriter or a computer keyboard working. And this, usually, on top of a fifty- or sixty-hour week doing my regular job. Now I don’t have the energy for any of that. I have the time. I haven’t held down—haven’t been able to hold down—a paid job in eight years but somehow the day ends and I find I’ve managed three or four hours of productive work on a good day. The old me wouldn’t have been satisfied with less than twelve, seven days a week. But what’s really disappointing is how little I manage to achieve in those three or four hours. Hell, it can take me three hours to write an e-mail. I’d hoped with rest I’d get better after that last breakdown but I really did a number on myself and I didn’t bounce back the way I had in the past. Because that was how I worked, literally until I collapsed (mentally anyway), took a few weeks off and then clambered back on the horse again. And yet here’s the thing: I look back on my output over the last thirty-odd years and I feel I didn’t do nearly enough, I didn’t work nearly as hard or as long as I could’ve. If I’d known my big end was going to go in my late forties then I might’ve taken my foot off the gas a bit, paced myself. But you don’t know what’s coming. Some buggers just keep on churning out book after book, year after year. They’re not normal. I’m not sure writing gets easier with practice. On one level, yes, it does; we know where all the hyphens and commas go and don’t make nearly as many spelling mistakes as we used to. And then there’s what we write. The rest of us only have so much worth saying. Most have enough to fill a book, maybe two. After that there’s the danger of repeating ourselves and it takes longer and longer to think of new stuff to say, new stuff that worth devoting time trying to say it the right way. Which is why, I guess, I wrote only four poems and a novella last year. And, honestly, I’m not at all displeased with that. (I, of course, forget about the thousands of words in the blogs and I’ve been chided about that.) Guilt is a bitch. You look at other writers without really knowing anything about their lives and they seem to be so prolific and we’re not and that can only be because we’re bad writers, right? In that respect the Internet is a depressing place. I find it so. Because there’s always someone having a great day and wanting to tell you about it. Every damn day. And mostly I don’t have great days. Yesterday I spend three hours going through my novel checking every use of the word ‘then’ and I’m only about a quarter way through because I kept noticing other things than need tweaking or at least checking. Not exciting, not remotely exciting, but necessary work and satisfying. And I’ve got weeks of that ahead. But at least I’m writing. Even if it is at a snail’s pace.

  4. Hi Jim. I'm impressed that you could concentrate enough to get such a great response. I don't think I could manage that.