Get Focused: How to Create a Writing Life Free of Distractions
"The Path of Least Revision"
Getting into the chair to write is half the battle. The other half? Actually writing. #writerproblems
Distractions abound. Before you know it, you've had an hour-long Twitter conversation about the pros and cons of using Scrivener to draft your book, with Scrivener open in the background, and no new words to count. (And you know Scrivener is counting each and every word.)
Or perhaps you sit down to write, only to find your smartphone in your hand while you crush some candy or receive a smackdown in Words with Friends. Or maybe that last one is just me...
Distractions are a fact of life as a writer, but that doesn't mean they have to stop you from writing—if you know how to manage them.
What Interferes with Your Writing?
Part of managing your distractions is knowing what they are. It sounds silly and obvious, but sometimes you'll find other distractions underneath the surface-level ones.
Always finding yourself doing other work? Perhaps the deeper distraction is that you have too much going on, which is easy to do if you overcommit on projects and don't have a system set up for prioritizing work. Without priorities, it's easy to jump around from project to project—and accomplish nothing.
Below are some common distractions.
Social media has become such a huge part of our everyday lives, and is so entrenched in daily activities that we don't even recognize it as a distraction. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat—the list seems endless.
How often do you find yourself checking your Facebook timeline or your Instagram feed, not just when you're supposed to be writing, but throughout a normal day? Social media is an addiction, and our culture feeds it.
Tip: To get an overview of your social media life, take a look at your smartphone or tablet and how many apps you've downloaded. Which social apps do you use the most?
Family, Friends, and Animals
Let's face it: As awesome as it is to have friends and family and pets, sometimes they can distract us from writing. And while you should definitely make time for your loved ones—and give them your full, undivided attention—if you don't set boundaries around your writing time, you'll find yourself interrupted constantly.
TV and Streaming
I'll admit to losing entire afternoons (or weekends) to binge-watching shows in my pajamas if you will, too. And if you're lost in the wonderful world of Netflix or Hulu, you're definitely not writing. (Binge-watching a show isn't "writing research" either, by the way, no matter how much you wish it was.)
Even though downtime and rest is important, it’s too easy for one show to turn into a season or two, which can devour your entire weekend.
You only have to look up from your phone to see how addicted everyone is to theirs. Smartphones have become how we consume information and interact with loved ones—without having to talk to anyone: the introvert's dream come true.
In a time where smartphones are a natural extension of your hand (or ear), you might not realize how much of a distraction your phone is until you attempt to not use it. I dare you to try it sometime—it's tougher than you might imagine. Yes, even if you already imagine it's tough.
Why Are Your Distractions Distracting?
You'll learn pretty quickly that one of my favorite questions is why. If you don't understand why something is distracting, it'll be impossible to set up a plan of action to manage your distractions (which, you know, is what this article is about).
The why can also help you dig beyond the surface-level distractions. A lot of distractions that seem like distractions are actually something else—like fear or doubt—and it's easier to let yourself get pulled in a different direction than confront those deeper problems.
Sometimes we choose to watch a favorite TV show instead of writing because we're tired or "don’t have the energy" or we don't know what we're doing with our manuscripts. TV becomes a symptom of a larger issue rather than a simple distraction. It becomes an excuse.
Excuses are the downfall of every writer.
Expectations vs. Reality
It's easier to not write than it is to write, and the thought of writing is more romantic than actually writing.
We imagine ourselves typing furiously away, sipping our coffee or tea, and creating a story that everyone will love. The reality is more akin to staring blankly at a computer screen while you write and rewrite the story in your head, never getting a word on paper.
And creating a story everyone loves? Impossible. Take a look at any well-loved book (Harry Potter, anyone?) on Goodreads and you'll find plenty of one-star reviews. (Voldemort wasn't impressed with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, apparently.)
Having a dream is okay—even necessary to being successful at writing. But unrealistic expectations of what your writing life should be like can be enough to derail your writing efforts and, in some cases, create writer's block.
Get Honest with Yourself
This? This being honest with yourself thing? It's hard. Really hard. It may even make you want to sink back into your couch and watch more Netflix. But if you don't understand why you're distracted, you can't figure out your action plan, either.
It's okay—normal, even—to get distracted. It happens to everyone, and what matters isn't that you get distracted but how you choose to deal with it. That's why we'll (finally) break down how to manage your distractions.
Set Up Your Plan of Action
Once you know what your distractions are and why they derail your writing, effectively dealing with the distractions gets a little easier. You still have to put in the work, of course, but you'll have a solid approach to the situation the next time it crops up.
These basic plans will get you started in managing your distractions.
When it comes to writing, boundaries are your friend. They establish expectations between you and the people most likely to distract you. That's usually your family and friends, but sometimes that's you, too.
Setting a boundary might be something like, "When I'm in my office with the door closed, don't disturb me because I'm writing" or "I write between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. every day, so I'm not available to go out."
By enforcing these boundaries with others, you enforce them with yourself, too. If you tell everyone that you write for an hour every day, you'd better make sure you're actually writing during that time.
Turn Off Push Notifications
Push notifications are the death of productivity. And no, that's not me being dramatic. Remember how social media and smartphones are common distractions? A big part of that reason is being notified anytime anyone does anything on any social media platform. And that's not even including email notifications.
Most apps have push notifications enabled when you install the app. But you can (and should) disable push notifications. You can still open the app and check for updates, but your phone won't ping every time something happens, pulling your attention away from writing.
Your battery life will thank you, too.
Push notifications invite distractions into your life. They're always there, nagging you to open the app and do something. They clutter your brain and steal your mental energy, even if you don't actively deal with them.
Develop a Distraction-Free Routine
What does it mean to have a distraction-free routine? It means setting up a routine where you essentially have to outsmart yourself.
If you know your phone is a distraction, keep it in a different room while you write. If you know social media and the Internet is a distraction, turn off your Wi-Fi while you write. If your family is a distraction, write at a library or coffee shop.
My distraction-free routine? I write at 6:30 a.m. every weekday morning, with Scrivener in full-screen mode on one screen and a timer on the other. Turning my writing time into a race against the clock keeps me focused and competitive.
The trick is figuring out what works for you.
Yes, rewards work, and they're the perfect solution to not letting TV shows swallow up all your writing time. If you know you want to watch the next season of your latest addiction, get your writing in first, then watch away.
Your turn: What's your biggest distraction and how do you deal with it?
Amanda Shofner satisfies her desire for adventure with the written word and helps others do the same. Currently writing romantic suspense.