Did you know your brain works in two speeds?
Like a 2-speed blender, your brain takes “ingredients” from outside and mixes them into your current stream of thought. Just like the blender, each speed has a distinct purpose. But only one will help you write productively.
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about these differences in how we think in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
In “fast mode,” your brain processes information rapidly — even automatically. It’s fast mode you use when driving your car, reading emotions on someone’s face, or instantly making familiar mental connections.
Here’s an example of fast mode thinking you can try for yourself. Read the first word out loud, then mentally fill in the blank on the second as you read that one aloud:
Did the word soap come instantly to mind?
However, if I give you a different set, what word do you think of now?
Same three letters in the second word, but chances are you would rather eat soup than soap, right?
These are examples of priming. If you’re now eating soap, I apologize for priming your diet with the first example. But most who read this will have already reset their brain to “eat soup” from the new priming word.
There’s great science here you can master to enhance your writing. Only you won’t do it while your brain is operating in fast mode, bouncing from thought to thought.
You see, fast mode is designed to help you process familiar tasks quickly and easily. Instinctively. Such as scanning your inbox to see which emails you can handle without much thought. Or throwing in a load of laundry.
We tend to jump into fast mode thinking because it’s the easier path.
However, tasks which require more focus and mental effort use your brain in an entirely different way. It takes focused effort to simply enter this more purposeful “slow mode.” But the payoff in productivity is worth it.
Turn On Your Writer’s Brain
Becoming a better writer starts with actually getting words down on paper or into your computer. That takes the focused effort of slow mode thinking. And for many of us, that doesn’t come easily — because maintaining focus on a creative task like writing takes work.
Here’s the good news. Just like you can build stronger muscles through regular exercise, you can improve your ability to focus through regular practice, not to mention write faster.
The key is eliminating those fast mode distractions. You don’t have to go in for a day-long, head-down marathon session at your keyboard. In fact, that can be counterproductive as your mind needs the mental relief occasional distraction brings.
Instead, shoot for a half hour.
How many words could you write if, for the next half hour, you just write? And do nothing else but write? Probably more than you’ll write if you’re simultaneously checking the news or weather.
Two tried-and-proven methods for getting into the zone for a solid block of focused writing productivity include the Pomodoro Technique and famed copywriter Eugene Schwartz’s timer trick.
The Pomodoro Technique
Named after a kitchen timer in the shape of a pomodoro (Italian for “tomato”), university student Francesco Cirillo used a tomato-shaped timer to improve his studying habits by focusing for set periods of time.
At first, maintaining focus for only 10 minutes was a challenge. But through continued practice, Francesco developed the ability to maintain uninterrupted focus in 25-minute blocks with breaks between for less productive tasks like cleaning up his desk, grabbing a cup of coffee, or checking voice mail.
Try the Pomodoro Technique yourself:
- Get a kitchen timer or use an app on your phone or computer.
- Set the timer for 25 minutes (you may need to build up to this amount of uninterrupted work).
- Focus exclusively on your writing project.
- When the timer rings, stop and take a break.
There’s much more to the complete Pomodoro Technique, including work planning, work reviews, and managing breaks and interruptions. You can download The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo — detailing the entire method, including worksheets for using it best — for free from http://baomee.info/pdf/technique/1.pdf.
The Gene Schwartz Timer Trick
Even simpler than Pomodoros, but just as effective for famed copywriter Eugene Schwartz, was his 33:33 timer trick. You might call it the butt-in-seat, mind-on-task method.
Gene would pound the ‘3’ key on his kitchen timer four times to set it for 33 minutes and 33 seconds and hit start. During that time, he would sit at his desk and only allow himself to do three things:
- Drink coffee.
- Stare at the wall.
Once the timer went off, he would get up for a short break then return to write some more. In five sessions each morning, he would accomplish more than most writers do in a full day.
Try Gene’s Timer Trick yourself:
- Set your timer to 33:33 (or another regular block of time).
- Write — or sit — until the timer goes off.
- Take a 5-minute break.
Again, allow your mind to focus. Avoid interruptions. Even if you have writer’s block, don’t do anything else except write (or drink coffee) until your break. Soon your mind will learn to focus on writing whenever you set your timer.
Choose one of these techniques and practice on a regular basis. Before long, you’ll be able to quickly switch your brain to slow mode, in turn making you a faster, more productive writer.