Life is distracting. There is no doubt about that. Texts ding. Calls ring. Cats need petting. Children want food. There are so many distractions. Even ideas distract.
There is something about the new and shiny that demands attention. Even new ideas. They are exciting and the urge to drop everything and follow where they lead is a strong one. Unfortunately, it is also a great way to end up with a hundred unfinished manuscripts.
The trick is to find a way to capture those ideas in a way that preserves them without losing detail so you can defer the excitement to another time. This takes practice. It’s a balance between capturing the idea enough to keep it intact without abandoning your current project.
I do this through a series of idea notebooks, some electronic and some in paper.
Typically when I start a new project, I create a Scrivener file that allows me to link digital research files to my idea and work files. I also purchase a new project notebook to capture random ideas by hand. I like the flexibility of both mediums. I find writing longhand is best when I am just starting out or when I am stuck. I also prefer to take a notebook with me wherever I go so I don’t miss recording ideas. I do that or I use Siri to take notes for me in recorded form that I transcribe later. She is a great assistant for those times when I cannot write, like when I am driving.
If my ideas are for a big project, like a novel or documentary film that will require research, I may even start a binder with printed research and a working bibliography.
I capture those ideas as completely as I can, and then I go back to my main project. The one that demands an ending. The one I have committed my time and energy to until I can write “The End” in dramatic fashion, like an old black and white movie.
Staying focused on one idea is not easy, though. It comes down to priorities.
My novel is my number one priority for my personal work. I also have client work that I am contractually obligated to finish. There is no wiggle room there either.
The thing that works for me is to view my ongoing work, like my novel, as a contract with myself. I have signed on to finish it and I will meet my obligation the same way as if I was a paying client. Deadlines work for me.
Fair warning: This approach does have its drawbacks. Viewing my novel as a firm commitment, means that when I procrastinate or get distracted with other ideas or even playing clients, I feel guilt. Perhaps it’s a holdover from the nuns in my childhood, but I find guilt a good motivator to keep me in line, even while feeling manipulated. It’s a complicated situation.
Sometimes I can manage my priorities by taking notes and giving myself reminders. Research black holes. Investigate nebulas. I write down what I am going to need for my next project and then move on, knowing that I have reminded myself.
It’s like meditation in a way. You note the thought and then let it go, confident that I’ve preserved the idea for a later time.