If I told you how many times I got distracted while writing this post, you would … oh let’s be real, you would probably believe me. Because it happens to all of us. We go in fully intending to work on something straight through until it’s done. But this rarely, if ever, actually happens.
I just got distracted again. Seriously. I’m not doing a good job of managing my focus today.
Which is the perfect way to transition into my guide that will (hopefully) help you to be less like me and more like a writer who will STOP CHECKING TWITTER AND SLACK AND FACEBOOK AND WHAT EVEN ELSE WAS I JUST LOOKING AT I DON’T KNOW.
Know your go-to distractions and/or your most distractable moods. You could probably name a dozen things off the top of your head that distract you from your writing. Netflix. Twitter. Text messages. News. Puppies. Food. Books. Stuff on Amazon you don’t need. Wait, how did that get in my cart …
The first step in learning to handle your distractions is knowing what those go-to distractions are. You likely already do. So don’t be embarrassed or frustrated about them. Instead, lay them all out on the table — literally, if you want to. Acknowledge that they exist. What’s important is that you are able to identify that in certain situations, for example, having your phone on and within reach is going to take your focus away from writing.
Similar to this, you should also be aware of how well you are (or aren’t) able to focus in certain situations or when you are in certain moods. This will change the way you approach these situations and might even help you decide whether or not writing is even an option at any particular moment.
Example: I know that when I am anxious about something, I’m going to try logging on to Twitter every five minutes. It’s just something my brain tells me to do and, if I don’t fight it, will succeed in convincing me to do throughout the entire day. Sometimes, I have to give myself permission to not write in these moments. But when I don’t have any other choice, I will take my laptop (which currently only allows me to open documents), sit somewhere where I don’t have easy access to the internet, and write as best I can.
If possible, set aside at least one distraction-free block of time per week. Or per day, if you can manage it.
It’s no secret that being a writer while you have a dozen other roles to play and responsibilities on your plate is the hardest part about Making Words Happen. If your only task was to write, you would have a much easier time sitting down when it was most convenient and taking on projects one page at a time.
But adulting! There’s so much to do, and often so many other creaturs to take care of (human and non-human alike). One reason so many writers struggle so much is because they try so desperately to make everything happen all on their own. They think they have to. Or they think they don’t have a choice.
Here’s one important thing I have learned: If you are kind and considerate about asking, the people in your life are often more than willing to make compromises and help you out every now and then. I don’t think I would have been able to write as many words as I have this year if I didn’t have my parents close by to help me with my child (my dog) on the occasional Saturday afternoon when I just needed space to work uninterrupted for a bit.
It doesn’t hurt to ask. And it’s not impossible to find people willing to help you get some blocks of alone time during which you can let your thoughts and feelings pour out onto paper. Sometimes you just need that. Do whatever you can to create that space in your life, whatever it takes.
Create ‘distraction blockers’ that actually work. The reality is, sometimes you can’t completely remove yourself from distracting circumstances. If I had to leave my house every time someone had a TV on louder than it needed to be (my ultimate pet peeve and biggest writing distraction by far), I wouldn’t technically live here anymore!
When you can’t remove yourself from the things that are distracting you, you can try to block them out.
These could be literal blockers like Cold Turkey, an app that allows you to restrict your own access to certain websites for a specified amount of time. I like this method better than disabling your internet or Wi-Fi because let’s be honest, sometimes you have to stop and look things up, it’s just how your process works. I’m allowed to Google the state capital of Mississippi but I’m not allowed to take any BuzzFeed quizzes. Whatever works.
You can also create roundabout ways to keep yourself from indulging in certain distraction-triggering behaviors. Keeping your phone upside-down on your desk so you can’t see when you have a new notification. Get noise-canceling headphones to block out background noise, or try to find instrumental music or white noise that blocks out distracting sounds but doesn’t distract your thoughts.
Train your brain to work for rewards. As I am writing this blog post, the only thing I am thinking about besides making sure I form coherent, helpful sentences for your eyes to view and your mind to absorb is the show I would rather be watching. It’s all I really want to be doing right now, if I’m being honest. There is a blizzard outside my window, it’s cold, I have warm coffee, I am still wearing pajama pants.
I just want to watch stupid, mindless TV. And technically, the world would not end if I did. I have deadlines, but nothing is “technically” due tomorrow. I could just … snuggle in and watch someone else’s story come to life. It’s a highly distracting desire.
But guess what? I’m not going to sit down and watch TV right now. I might not even get around to it today at all. Not because I don’t “deserve” it, not because I’m “depriving” myself of something I enjoy, but because I am constantly in the process of conditioning my brain to associate things like TV watching with “being done with my work.”
In this case, TV is a reward. It is something I have the privilege of partaking in once the rest of my work for the day is done. I know in my head — because I have trained my brain to believe it’s true — that if work happens, TV happens. If work does not happen, TV might still happen, but it will not be fun TV. It will be guilty TV, and that’s not fun.
Our brains come to know routines and how things work. If you continuously feed your brain the reward before the task is complete, it will learn that a task does not have to be completed in order for a reward to happen. And that’s going to make staying productive and getting your work done a thousand times harder.
The process of training your brain to associate work with reward can be a long one, and it takes a lot of patience and practice. And even then, no one is perfect. There are still days I don’t get done what I need to get done. And I do the best I can to withhold the would-have-been reward to remind my brain work and play are still connected.
Make your tasks manageable and your rewards beneficial. Don’t make your to-do list so long that you never get the rewards you promise yourself, and don’t reward yourself with things you might end up regretting (e.g., don’t reward yourself with potato chips. That might not always work out in your favor.)
Distractions are tough to handle. But you know what’s tougher? You.
You got this. I got this. We all “got this.” Now go! Go write! Write all the words!
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.