My train of thought tends to run, not on traditional click clack track, but something more akin to a corkscrew roller coaster, swooshing down tunnels and circling back on itself to the point of distraction. (Does your choo choo drive you cuckoo too?) But it’s not only in my brain, I have external attention snatchers too. I’ve got innies and outies!
See, I used to think all of my distractions were primarily outies–you know, phone calls, people, social media, the refrigerator . . . and I fantasized about escaping to a little cabin all by myself. What bliss to sit alone with my thoughts and focus solely on my writing.
A few years ago I had such a fanciful opportunity thanks to the Highlights Foundation. There I was in a darling cabin–yes, in the mountains in early fall–with someone to prepare gourmet meals for me, and a group of encouraging writers to enjoy them with. No phone, no household chores, no job, no reason not to focus. I was working on a middle grade novel in the peace of my idyllic sanctuary, and then my brain said, hey, I wonder if I can get Internet access up here . . . and off I went checking email (this was long before I joined Facebook or I would have been looking at that too). [Insert eye-rolling red face here.] Yes, I got some real writing done, but that experience taught me that I can’t blame external forces alone for feeling distracted while writing. Internal distractions can be just as powerful (and sneaky).
Here are some suggestions to help combat internal distractions:
Buy a kitchen timer–set it for an allotted writing time, or do what I do–write for as long as you can sustain your focus, and then set a timer for 15 minutes to take a break. When the rooster timer dings at my house, it’s back to work. Do not use your phone for a timer. We both know why, right?
Keep a notepad and pen next to your computer. When stray thoughts bubble up–find shoes to go with that dress, get toothpaste, invent a way to make cellulite look cool–jot it down so won’t have to worry about remembering it or worse–jump up and do it.
Set regular writing appointments (because being irregular can be a drag). Promise to honor, cherish and protect those appointments in sickness and in health til the end of the writing project. How does this help with internal distractions? Just like establishing a regular sleep schedule helps you achieve a rest-promoting rhythm, so too, regular writing times get your brain in the writing zone more quickly and your muse will know when and where to find you. (Right, Enid? She’s my muse!)
Exploit your natural resources. If you have other writing friends, ask one of them to be your accountability partner. It’s miraculous how much better I focus when I know someone is going to check up on me. You can also use your critique group for this purpose, if they set regular deadlines for submissions.
Take a writing class. I was so frustrated with my lack of forward momentum and inability to stay focused that I actually signed up for a class through the Institute of Children’s Literature. That’s right, I’m paying someone to keep me on track. And you know what? I’ll be finishing my second novel this year, finally, all thanks to the deadlines set by my teacher.
Follow the one hour rule. Okay, so it’s not really a rule. I made that up. But the idea is to sit down to write one hour before you ll have to be somewhere else. For example, some days I go into the office at my day job one hour early for the sole purpose of working on my own writing. Knowing I will need to shift gears at exactly 8:30 a.m. makes me stay on track. (I’m not a morning person, so I don’t want to get up early and then waste that time.) This could also work if you know your kids will be home in an hour or if you have one hour for your lunch break. We know high school kids who work and go to school tend to get better grades because they know they have to make good use of study time when they get it. That same idea holds true for writers. If you have a little window of time, don’t wiggle through it. Use it!
Use carrots, not sticks. In other words, when your mind starts to meander down a rabbit hole, bring it back to the surface by reminding yourself if you write X number of words (or pages) today,
you can ___(insert reward here)_____.
Practice mindfulness. I’ve already blogged about mindfulness this year. And if you don’t mind, please check out that post to see if this practice would help you to maintain focus and center on the present.
Keep your goals in sight. A writing friend of mine, Rachel Anderson, says it helps her to write her goals out and put them near writing area. “That way, when I get distracted, I see the note and most times turn right around and go back to the computer.” Go Rachel!
Let’s move on to taming external distractions . . .
Yes, there’s an app for that too. Social media is probably one of the primary time munchers, wouldn’t you agree? There are apps you can get that will take up where your self-discipline lags.
Create a “Cone of Silence.” Rachel Anderson also told me, “I write in silence…no TV, no radio, and I cannot have my e-mail or Facebook open or Facebook open–all are distractions to me. My mind works best when it is completely open and the quiet does that for me.” Another writing friend Kelly Barson selected the tiniest room in her home for her office. It’s pretty ingenious–there’s no room for kids or dogs to congregate! Brilliant. Let peace and quiet reign.
Teach your family to recognize what writing looks like. For a long time, my family didn’t clue into what’s happening when I’m writing. They thought that if I was sitting in front of the computer and my fingers were still, that I was not writing and was therefore approachable to answer very important questions, such as, “Smell this. Does this smell okay to you?” or “Have you seen my other sock?” They didn’t understand that writers are writing in their brains before it comes out the keyboard. Now they know because I told them so. I’ve also told them not to interrupt me unless someone is bleeding or something is on fire and there’s no one else who can help. That hasn’t entirely squelched distractions, but it’s made my husband and daughter think twice before asking, “Where did you put the thing?”
Most all of these ideas can also help you overcome distraction’s slutty older sister: procrastination. Oh, she’s fun at first, but she’ll only get you in the trouble. Steer clear of her!
I could not resist . . . I’m breaking with tradition and sharing not one, but three, quotes with this post. If one inspires you, why not put it on the wall in your writing space to help you stay focused.
Sand was dribbling out of the bag of her attention, faster and faster. ~ Sarah Blake
It helps me to set small goals to reduce distraction because I can dance with distraction until daylight.~ Rachel Anderson
At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say,—’Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson