The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. `Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.” Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter XIII.
Once I have an idea, I often ask myself, “Where do I begin?” The King makes a good point but, where exactly is the beginning, and how do I know I’ve reached the end? More questions. The answer to the first question, for me, is routine. Before I can get into the writing mode, I have to clear out my workspace. I have to wrangle my thoughts and surroundings. I have to decide to do this, at the expense of everything else.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant (often misattributed to Aristotle)
For me, the state of focus takes deliberate effort. Where to begin to achieve focus? Routine.
The benefits of an established routine can be observed in various types of training. I recall Jeff Hornacek at the free-throw line. (I won’t link it here to avoid confusing our algorithm overlords.) While I was in the service, our morning routine was essentially the same for four years. When I train my dogs and they train me, we repeatedly do the same things until it becomes an effortless habit. The routine cannot begin until I choose to focus on it. To get into focus, I start my routine in the same way, at the same time, or as close as I can get it.
Step one: Ideas onto paper.
I scatter my ideas onto paper with ink. (You may like to type out your thoughts. Pen and paper work better for me on the first pass.)
Step two: Pacing and muttering.
After I’ve got the initial ideas on paper, I pace my office and hallway, and anywhere else, my feet lead. I like to vocalize my thoughts because it helps me complete the ideas. If I don’t verbalize it, I’m not compelled to finish the sentence, phrase, or thought, and then it’s easy to slip into another partial idea. If I allow it, I can chase my tail all day. So I pace, and I mutter, and I talk to the dogs and the walls and ask questions of imaginary characters.
Step three: Select a theme. (Determine why anyone might want to read this.)
I come back to my notebook and make new notes based on my pacing and muttering. I add, revise, and annotate and go over each idea, fuss about, inspecting, detecting, neglecting, and selecting, having added all my circles and arrows and a paragraph for each one. (apologies to Arlo Guthrie) Then I answer the question, “Why would anyone want to read this?” Therein, I find the theme.
Step four: Take a breath
Once I’ve got a good amount of raw material on the page and plenty of residual floating around in my head, I will escort the dogs from my office, turn off my music and silence my phone. I spend a moment, eyes closed, listening to my breathing, then I put my fingers on the keys.
Step five: Set a timer for twenty-five minutes and write the words.
The first four steps are essentially stripping away all my excuses. I’m not ready, I’m tired, I don’t know what to write, blah blah. I ask myself each time if I can get into focus for at least twenty-five minutes; if not, I don’t sit down to write. I will not stare at a blank page. Sometimes I’ll get back up and start the process over again. The routine reinforces the habit.