Many writers struggle to stay focused. You either can’t force yourself to get started, you feel bored, you give yourself too much to do or you try to jump between too many things at once. When it comes to writing, focus is essential. You have a goal – to write something – and to accomplish that goal, you need to learn to focus on it until it’s done.
Focus is all about sitting down to complete a task – in our case, something writing-related – and actually finishing it. This requires some use of basic productivity principles. Unlike the generic productivity advice you’ll generally find online, you might actually find these writing-specific suggestions useful in your quest to stay focused and get more writing done throughout the week.
Schedule writing time in hour-long intervals
Altogether, it takes me about an hour or so to put together a blog post. I used to try and spread out writing, editing, formatting and social media posting throughout the day so I didn’t have to do it all at once, but that made me too anxious. So I’ll spend an hour putting it all together, take a break and then move on to something else for an hour, take a break, and repeat.
After about an hour of working on the same thing, usually we lose focus. Our brains need rest. You might think you can power through a few hours of straight writing, but it’s not only bad for your brain – it’s bad for your writing, too. Your writing gets sloppier the longer you do it, and it becomes much harder to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. Give yourself an hour straight to work, take a break, and move on to something else for another hour. You’re much more likely to be able to focus on writing what you need to write, and keeping the quality at a reasonable level in the process.
Build a writing task list you can actually handle
I’ve definitely been guilty of writing daily to-do lists that physically and mentally cannot be completed. The problem with this bad habit is the psychological effect: the more you feel you have to write, the less productive your writing time will be. If I have five different writing assignments I want to work on, I feel rushed, like I don’t have enough time, which makes it really hard to focus. When I focus on just one or two assignments at a time, I not only take my time, but I end up getting more writing done throughout the day.
There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but what’s important is that you don’t try to jump from one project to another too quickly. This is why hour-long intervals are effective for a lot of people. The less you have on your schedule today, the less likely you are to try and task hop. Or worse, multi-task. Focus on one thing at a time, and make that possible by only giving yourself a few things to work on at a time.
Give yourself office hours
This sounds a bit strange, but if you want to learn how to focus on your writing, treat your writing the same way you might treat a real job. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very good at this before writing actually became my job, and I definitely don’t expect you to be, either. People who don’t write regularly don’t really understand that time needs to be set aside for it – it isn’t like watching TV or reading, which you can sort of do whenever you feel like it. I don’t write before 8am and I don’t usually write after 6pm. I take breaks throughout the day, but when it’s writing time, it’s time to write. Not go to lunch time or watch Netflix time or Skype with the boyfriend time (I mean, hypothetically).
During your ‘work’ hours, stay off social media. Don’t read or answer messages that don’t relate to your writing. You might have a full-time job, and your writing time happens either before or after those hours. That’s ok; it’s tough, but it’s manageable (yes, I’ve been there; I get it). But you still have to set time. I’d personally hop off the train at 6pm, give myself an hour to unwind and then write from 7 to 9, sometimes later. Honestly, you gotta do what you gotta do. Some days, I used to have only 15 minutes to free write. That’s still better than zero. But during that time, regardless of the length, you have to focus. Little by little, you’ll reach your goals, if you put in the effort to do so.
I’m not going to make eliminating distractions its own point because I’ve beaten you over the head with that enough this year. It pretty much goes without saying at this point that writing and distractions cannot co-exist. If you can’t focus on your writing because you’re distracted, it’s pretty much up to you to straighten out your priorities and settle writing up near the top.
Is focusing on writing hard? Oh yeah. While I wrote this blog post, I answered a phone call (necessary), paused to pet my cat (also necessary) and went to get more coffee. Those are good examples of what NOT to do when you’re writing something! But after an hour of working on this, I’m ready to eat breakfast. I’ll then move on to one of the only three other things I’ve set up for myself to work on today. I’ll write on and off until around five or six. And then I’ll binge-watch Agent Carter, because after focusing all day on this nonsense most of us call writing, the brain needs a whole lot of nothing to recharge.
Focus. Need to write a blog post today? Pick a time, sit down and write it. The more you train yourself to just do it, just doing it really does become easier. I promise.
What are your biggest hurdles when it comes to focusing on your writing? What strategies have you found most helpful in overcoming them so far?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.