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How to Write Without Distractions

Photo courtesy of Mayr

“Writing is a fairly lonely business unless you invite people in to watch you do it, which is often distracting and then you have to ask them to leave.” - Marc Lawrence

One of the biggest challenges for any writer, especially these days, is the temptation of the Internet, the pull of your favorite distractions, and — if you work at home — the siren’s call of the couch.

If you want to get writing done (hence the title of this site), you need to learn to clear your writing time of any distractions.

At this moment, I can proudly say that I’m writing this post distraction-free. And I can also say that it’s without a doubt the best way to write.

Good writing requires focus.

Those four words will make a huge difference to your writing if you’ve been having problems so far.

Sure, it’s fun to be able to check email, have the TV on in the background, and begin the endless chain of browsing that begins with a simple statement like, “Maybe I’ll just look that up on Wikipedia.” Or Google, or wherever you like to look things up.

But that fun comes at a cost: your writing. So, my recommendation is to make a choice: do you want the distractions, or do you want to write?

If you want to write, here’s how to do it without distractions.

1. Do your research first. Get this part out of the way, so that when you’re ready to write, you have everything you need. If you do research as you write, you’ll constantly be flipping back and forth. And when you do research, you’re most likely pulled in different directions as you find new things that catch your attention. So do your research, and have that ready before you start your writing. If, during the actual writing, you think of other things you need to look up, make a note of it at the bottom of your document (or on paper) and move on. You can always fill in the blanks later.

2. Turn off the Internet. Seriously. I know we love it, we need it, we couldn’t work without it. But if you’ve done your research, you don’t need the Internet to write. Really.

At this moment, I’m writing with no Internet. I’ve already collected the links I want to share for this post, and now I’ve shut down my browser and I’m focusing completely on writing. When I’m done writing the text, I’ll paste it into WordPress and format it, but right now it’s all about the text.

If shutting down your browser isn’t enough, actually disconnect the cable or unplug your modem. It’s just temporary, but it makes a big difference. Another great method is to write on a laptop, and go somewhere where there’s no wi-fi.

3. Use Writeroom. Writeroom if you’re on a Mac, or some other similar software (Writer.app is another good Mac writing program, and DarkRoom works well for the PC — I’ve used all three and love them).

Basically, these programs are for writing text, and nothing else. They block out the rest of your computer with a black (or otherwise faded) background, so that you have the text … and that’s all. They aren’t chock-full of features like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice. You write in full-screen mode, with no distractions.

4. Shut down everything else. Got other programs running? Shut them down if possible. Not just your browser, but your mail program, RSS reader, games, graphics program, anything. Sure, if you’re using one of the minimalist writing programs mentioned above, they’ll be blocked from view, but trust me, it’s still too much of a temptation to press a few keys and switch over to another app. Shutting everything down is a smart move.

5. Turn off the TV. Actually, I’m not a fan of any background noise, with the possible exception of music. I don’t usually work with music, but I know that it can help a lot of writers. The thing is, if you play around with your music a lot, it’s just another distraction. If you can create the perfect playlist real quick, then forget about it, that’s fine. But if you find yourself opening your favorite player to look for a new song, you should probably do without it. Television is almost never a good thing for a writer.

6. Clear your desk. I like visual clutter to be completely removed, so that it’s not even a subconscious distraction. I write with basically nothing on my desk, no papers, nothing. Maybe a glass of water to keep me hydrated. Maybe a pen and pad if needed. Otherwise, clear it all out. Instead of spending time sorting through your papers, just collect them all in a pile and put them in a drawer somewhere. You can sort through them later. Same thing with pens and nick knacks and other clutter — toss them in a drawer and sort them out later (here’s how to clear your desk when you have more time).

7. Shut off all phones and notifications. That’s right — unplug the phone and turn off the cell phone. You don’t need to be talking while you’re writing. And turn off your email notification, because you don’t need to know the second an email hits your inbox. That puts your writing at the mercy of whoever feels like emailing you at the moment. Make writing your priority if it’s important to you.

8. Let people know you’re in DND mode. Set a certain time of the day as your writing time, ideally, and let everyone know you’re not to be disturbed. Or put on headphones and let people know that you’re in writing mode. If you work at home, shut yourself in your home office and tell the family that it’s writing time, and you shouldn’t be bothered. By telling people, explicitly, that you can’t be disturbed, you prevent distractions from cropping up.

9. Just write. The most important step, of course. If you’ve cleared everything away, and you’ve turned everything off, and you’re in writing mode, you gotta just start writing. Just start typing. It’ll come. Stop fooling around with the computer, or checking on things, or looking for things … just stop doing everything else, and just write.

10. Take breaks. Of course, it’s hard to write uninterrupted for hours at a time. I recommend breaks every 15-20 minutes, or 30 at the most. It allows you to stretch, get the blood circulating, and think about what to write next. Move around. Take a walk. Get a drink of water. Take 5 minutes, then get back to writing.

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33 thoughts on “How to Write Without Distractions”

  • Some good advice here. I have often found difficulty in motivating myself to just write. I think a lot of it has to do with the discipline of the person though and not so much what you have running on the computer. I find little difference between writing distraction-free with Darkroom or Q10 and with writing in Word 2007 but when I completely clear my desk and write just of looseleaf paper than I notice a huge improvement to both my concentration and quality. For that reason, much of my written work is done by hand as a first draft then transcribed into Word or whatever to correct errors, spelling and add formating.

    I am liking your new site – I was linked here from Zen Habits. Thanks.

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  • Nez says:

    Great tips, Leo.

    I’ve also started carrying around a small 3×5 “Composition” book, with a Zebra F301 COMPACT pen (which is about 4 inches long when closed).

    Those come in handy when I’m out and about, and ideas come to mind — I can easily jot them down.

    And, with a notebook, I can flip back and forth to look at unfinished pieces, refer to older topics, and flesh out topic ideas, etc.

    Then, when I sit down at the computer, I’m ready to roll!

  • Infonote says:

    Hi,

    I agree with everything you wrote except for the music part.

    Listening to some types of music actually helps me concentrate when working.

  • Ryan Allen says:

    I love writeroom :) Though I preferred the original version. And I love DeskShade for ‘writing’ code:

    http://www.macrabbit.com/deskshade/

    It hides all the icons on the desktop so there’s even less clutter. Terminal + one Code window. No distractions from what I’m doing (or supposed to be doing).

  • Kristy says:

    Great tips as always, Leo!

    Like ‘Brian Darvell’, I do much better on paper and away from the computer. I have not disciplined myself to use a book dictionary or thesauarus or offline resources when I am using the computer to write. And we all know how easily those distractions come with just the click of one button. So, I must use a notebook for now.

    Leo, you’ve brought me a long way with Zen Habits, and this, well, I accept the much needed nudge with much respect! Thank you for this new blog!

    My best wishes to you!

  • Hey, great tips, thank you.
    I didn’t know those programs, I used Scrivener to write. This application also allows you to order your research, make notes, split you writing into chapters etc. So it’s good for people writing books.
    I just bought WriteWroom, it’s just that clean and simple :) So thank you, for that tip.

    Best wishes
    Maurice

  • Shutting down the internet is so important! I have a hard time concentrating if I haven’t turned off the wireless. Likewise, tv off, sitting in a room with no tv, or listening to music via headphones will helpme stay focused.

    Actually using writing software, though, takes away from writing. I’m so used to Word now that it’s the way to go.

  • Sarah Chia says:

    Thanks for the link to Dark Room. I just downloaded it and can immediately see the benefit to my eyes!

  • Scott says:

    Enjoying the new blog. Thanks.
    Linux users might want to check out the following forum discussion for scripts that work like WriteRoom:
    http://ubuntuforums.org/showpost.php?p=3256528&postcount=24

  • --Deb says:

    But, distractions are FUN!

    Which, of course, is the whole point . . . they’re more entertaining than the actual work stuff (eww!). Fabulous post, and I’ll get right on all these tips, just as soon as I check my e-mail…. (grin)

  • Clare says:

    So, my recommendation is to make a choice: do you want the distractions, or do you want to write?

    You know, all the tips are great, but to me this is the best one in the entire post. From now on, when I’m supposed to be writing and get distracted, I’ll try to ask myself this question. Thank you!

  • Maria P. says:

    Thank you. All I want to do is write… your post is so simple but is exactly what I needed to “hear”. I’ve been avoiding real writing lately… although I’m not sure why since it is the only thing I really want to do.

  • Tom Colvin says:

    Leo, I’m so glad that StumbleUpon brought me to your blog. You are writing about the issues I wrestle with myself, and I find your tips right on [even if I do have trouble sometimes following them].

    I’ll be posting to my blog tomorrow, recommending that all my readers head right over to your blog.

  • Hi Leo,

    I have been reading Zen Habits, since I found it a couple of weeks ago. This new blog of yours is wonderful with great tips on writing and writing life.

    Thanks,
    Desika

  • Tedel says:

    From writer to writer, I welcome this blog

  • :Donna says:

    Leo, this is my first time on your site, and I can tell I just LOVE it! Quality info here :) Your link (specifically for finding time to write) was in the “write4kids” newsletter. I came in and started browsing!

    Since distractions are a huge problem in my life, in general, I clicked on this article. I agree, and have known for years, about most of them, which is why I started going to B&N to write. I ended up getting to know most of the people there, so THEY became distractions! lol

    Anyway, I’ve never had Writer software other than Word, but that’s not on the internet, so it’s not an issue :) I never did think of removing the little bit of clutter around ’cause it’s not a distraction as much as I just wish I had a bigger working space, and I’ll never shut off my phone ’cause I have a son and don’t want to be out of touch with anyone in case of emergency, but other than that — all the kind of suggestions that work, certainly for me! And as far as music — I discovered over time, that I need some kind of “noise” (not loud) in the background most of the time, though it can’t be distracting noise. If I put on the TV, I have to put it on a channel I’d NEVER be distracted by, and keep it relatively low volume. The same for music — it would have to be something without lyrics, for sure.
    :Donna

  • Tom Colvin says:

    Donna, you may wish to take a look at TimeTool. I’ve tried all kinds of time tracking software, but this one works best for me. I use it just to judge, minute by minute, just how much time is going into several projects that are all clamouring for my attention. I’ll be reviewing this software within the month at my blog, which already has a number of reviews regarding time tracking.

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  • asrai says:

    Q10 is another program similar to darkroom. It even has the typewriter noises. It also allows you to set a word count total and word count for the day (up to 4 different counts).

  • This is a collection of very useful tips. Thanks for posting it.

  • I would agree with everything except the duration of the breaks. Of cource it will depend on your concentration abilities, but 15-20 minutes of continous work is too little. Each time you start writing again it will take at least 3-5 minutes to get in to a good flow and achieve maximum efficienty. If you make breaks that often then you will be working a lot of time on low productivity. I would reccomend writing non-stop for about 45 minutes. If you have priously made a clear plan what you should be writing then you can work for so long efficiently and even will not notice how fast the time flies, For example, if I have clear idea what to write about, then I can write 2 blog posts or article during 45 minutes non-stop work.

  • Susie says:

    It’s so hard to write uninterrupted, lol!
    I’ll turn off the TV now…

  • Bob says:

    I would add to your list that you should learn to write with your eyes closed. I find that it really helps me because I’m not going back to correct typos or to edit what I’ve done. I can write so much more if I’m less critical of myself while I’m in the writing stage, and even though I spend a lot more time editing, it’s better for me in the long run.

  • Erik says:

    Thank you for a good article. Another good distraction-free, free writing application is TextRoom http://code.google.com/p/textroom/

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