Monday, September 4, 2017


By Cindy Williams

Maybe you can write with a messy house but I can’t! I sit at my computer trying to focus on my characters but the thought of those dirty dishes in the sink or those unmade beds niggles at me, eroding my concentration. Maybe you are fine with unattended housework; maybe it’s the argument you had with a family member, an upset child or a misunderstanding with a friend.

Having read an article in my son’s school newsletter last week, I now know why that dirty floor disrupts my focus. Based on the book ‘Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence’ by Daniel Coleman (also author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’) the article explained that we have two semi-independent mental systems in the brain: the ‘Bottom-up’ mind and the ‘Top-down’ mind.

The ‘Bottom-up’ mind is the sub-cortex of our lower brain. It controls our habits, routines, intuition and impulses. It automatically runs without us having to think about it. It tells me that my house needs cleaning! No wonder artists escape to places where they can allow their creativity to flow without the interruption of daily duties.

The ‘Top-down’ mind is the neo-cortex of the upper brain. It is the seat of self control, effort, planning and new learning. This is what I need to use when I am writing but that stronger ‘Bottom-up’ mind tries its best to interrupt.

To focus, and use our ‘Top-down’ mind, we need to do three things:

  1. Close down sensory distractions around us e.g. turn off the Wi-Fi and turn the phone to silent.
  2. Minimise the amount we focus on. The top down system can only hold about five pieces of information at once. Multi-tasking saps attention resulting in shallow rather than deep learning.
  3. Close down emotional distracters within us. We have to tame the ‘Bottom-up’ system. When we try to consciously focus, for example, on writing, our emotional anxieties and uncomfortable, unresolved relationships fight for our attention.

Two types of people are better at focusing: those who can box off their emotions and those who are secure and at peace in their relationships.

And when we need a break from focusing, we can switch off with walking, a relaxing creative pursuit or meeting with a friend - all positive ‘Bottom-up’ thinking activities. Isn’t God great how he designed our brains? Now I know the physiology behind why a walk so relaxes and inspires me, and why 'a heart at peace gives life to the body' - and to the creative part of our brain!

About Cindy Williams

As a child growing up in a culturally rich part of New Zealand Cindy enjoyed writing, not copious screeds, but short intense pieces that brought tears to her eyes and made people think.

Then she became a dietitian – all science and seriously researched facts. She has a Master of Public Health and a Graduate Diploma in Communication and spent many years as a corporate nutrition consultant encouraging and inspiring people to live a healthy life.

She writes a nutrition blog – - and was short listed for the 2016 Caleb Prize for her debut novel The Pounamu Prophecy.

Cindy lives in Sydney with her husband and teenage son.


  1. Hi Cindy, thank you for these insights. "Minimise the amount we focus on" - yes. I'm sure there's some research that shows that those folks who focus on the one big thing achieve more than those of us who bang away trying to manage a bunch of things.

    Thank you for giving me some fuel to tackle today's tasks.

    1. Thanks, Ian. I am the worst at focusing so when I am writing a novel I set aside Mondays and Tuesday morning before going to my writing group Tuesday afternoon - exercise is allowed but no meeting friends, no doing the finances or other business stuff, no elaborate dinners cooked, minimum house cleaning!