Let’s face it. We all know what things distract us during the day.
Some of us just can’t stay off social media or check our phones for messages or emails every five minutes. Others get partway through writing a page and notice the floor needs sweeping or the dirty dishes are sitting in the sink.
One prolific best-selling suspense writer I know says she will find every and any reason not to write. She’ll be on her hands and knees scrubbing the stain out of her carpet instead of working on her scene. She looks for excuses not to write.
That’s not because she hates writing.
It’s because writing books IS hard! It takes intense focus and concentration, and the effort is often mentally exhausting.
It takes a lot of discipline to stick your butt in your chair, stay there, and be focused so you can crank out those chapters.
This is one reason I go to the library to write many of my novels’ scenes. I love my house—I’m in the woods on a creek and have a big porch with a table that looks out over the beautiful scenery. You’d think I would write here all the time.
I often do, but when I really need to eliminate as many distractions as possible, I leave. Because the floor does need sweeping, the dishes need washing, and the dog needs to play ball (like, every hour).
So putting yourself in a place where the distractions are limited is a great help.
And understanding why you get distracted is half the battle.
The Why of Distraction
Studies show that in the office, nearly 50% of US employees say they work for only fifteen minutes before getting distracted, and 53% report that they waste an hour or more each day due to disruptions.
Our brain structure may be to blame for some of this wandering. The prefrontal cortex of the brain regulates attention span and handles our emotions. So the rise of strong emotions (frustration, anger, annoyance) can cause us to be distracted from concentration.
The first step in all this is to zoom in and pinpoint the particular problem that is causing the distraction in a given instance.
If we’re distracted because of a strong emotion, we may need to deal with the situation causing the emotion before we can hunker down and write. Even if it means yelling in the closet for ten minutes, then shelving the emotion temporarily.
We all have problems that crop up in life that cause emotional distress and that aren’t easily resolved. That’s life.
Big Tasks Are Daunting
Big tasks can be so daunting they freeze us up. I think that’s what most writer’s block is about. The blank screen isn’t just one blank page to us; it represents the whole darn book we’re trying to write. We’re staring at an elephant and not a mouse, and that elephant is just too big to take in.
Solution? Break up the task, even if just in your mind, into smaller tasks. That’s why I set about writing one scene a day.
I can do one scene. I’ve written one scene in a day plenty of times. It’s a doable task for me. But if I sit down and think about how many more scenes I need to write before I’m done, I may not start.
I honestly believe this is a main reason writers procrastinate. The job is just too overwhelming. It’s too big a task.
When you’ve written a dozen or more books, you know you’ll get to the end. You know it’s just a matter of one chapter after the other and before long, you’ll be done.
But if you’ve never written a full-length book, the finish line seems halfway across the globe. It feels like a marathon.
Thing is, it is a marathon. But with a big difference.
I know that when I sit down to write the first scene of a new novel, if I think about the marathon ahead, I’ll start sweating. I’ll probably notice how dirty the floor is and get out the mop.
But if I remind myself that those slow and steady steps have always gotten me to the finish line, I’ll take the first steps.
Remember the famous line from Lao Tzu: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Don’t focus on the thousand miles. Just look at the path directly in front of you and start walking.
What else distracts you when you’re trying to write? Turning off notifications and unplugging your phone might be the most helpful way to eliminate distractions and buckle down to writing. But what about your work environment? Is your desk area a mess? Does that distract you?
Some people thrive in chaos, so if that’s you, cleaning up your work area isn’t going to help you be productive.
But if you’re the type that finds her eyes wandering to those sticky notes dangling from your computer monitor or the photos on the wall of your grandkids (or that jar of Hershey’s Kisses), maybe it would be a good idea to clear them out of your sight. This is a little thing, but it could make a difference in your concentration.
What about music? Does that help or hinder you when you write? I know one author who selects specific movie soundtracks to listen to when he writes. If he’s working on a high-action tense suspense scene, he’ll choose music to fit that. It gets him “in the mood.”
Music, and just about any noise, distracts me, so I turn off everything I can when I’m writing. However, the sound of the rain pattering and the creek gurgling outside my window is soothing and helps my mood. And that helps me write.
If you’re prone to being easily distracted, why not bribe yourself to work up the motivation to best them?
Tell yourself if you focus and write three pages, you can then get up and grab a piece of chocolate. I have multiple jars of chocolate in my house. When I get through writing a challenging passage, I’ll give myself permission to eat some chocolate.
If you have serious eating disorders, this might not be a good idea. But I think a lot of people find a reward system motivating.
It feels good to reward yourself when you’ve accomplished something.
We too often storm ahead on projects without stopping to pat ourselves on the back.
Be nice to yourself. Soak in that good feeling of pride and satisfaction when you finish writing a scene. That, to me, is the best part of writing! Even if the scene still needs a lot of work, instead of looking at the flaws, be glad you got the scene roughed in and written down.
Don’t focus on the negative and what you didn’t get done or what’s bad about your writing. Negativity is a productivity killer. And it’s distracting.
Other Ways to Boost Your Productivity and Cut Down on Distractions
Take little breaks. Concentrating hard is tiring, so give yourself a five- or ten-minute break every hour. Stand, stretch, grab a snack, wash a few dishes, play with the dog.
If you do have to work in a noisy environment, consider getting headphones. Either snuff out the noise or play some music (if that helps) or white noise.
I log on to Simplynoise.com and choose the type of noise color (yes, there are varieties to choose from) I want to listen to, then crank it up. I prefer the lower tones to the higher ones.
Make a List
Think about what distracts you. Make a list (sometimes making lists is a distraction!) of everything you can think of that distracts you when you’re trying to write, then work to eliminate those distractions. Create a “Stop Doing” list and then work to cross those items off your list.
Only you know what distracts you, so if you want to become a productive writer, take the time to look at those distractions and find ways to crash through them. Don’t let distractions keep you from getting that book written.
What is the #1 thing that distracts you from writing? What can you do to conquer it? How do you boost your productivity?
Note from the Editor-in-Chief: C.S. Larkin’s new book is now out:
Crank It Out! The Surefire Way to Become a Super-Productive Writer (The Writer’s Toolbox Series Book 7)