Distraction is a problem at the best of times. Writers can struggle to focus when there’s so much competing for our attention. Now, in an uncertain environment, when people are anxious, juggling new responsibilities and ever-changing priorities it’s harder than ever to concentrate on writing.
It might feel impossible to make progress with your project, but if you want or need to write here are some quick-fire, tried and tested tactics to experiment with. As we always say, productivity is personal. Skim through the list, pick out something and give it go. We’d love to hear how you get on.
1. Understand your distraction tendencies
Here’s a quick exercise to get clarity on what’s pulling you away from your writing. Think about a time you recently got distracted from a writing session. What did you do instead of the writing task you were meant to? Be specific and note it down. Next, step back and think more broadly, are there things that often pull you off task? List them all.
2. Brainstorm options to beat distraction
Once you know what’s distracting you, then you can come up with solutions. Have a brainstorm – think of all the simple, practical steps you can take, such as switching off email notifications. Then imagine of all the wild and crazy things you can do – such as building a soundproof underground writing bunker. Pick out the ones that are easiest to do or the most exciting and do them.
3. Keep a distraction diary
If you’re not sure what’s diverting you, keep a real-time distraction diary while you write. During your next writing session, when you spot your mind wandering, note it down. After a while you’ll spot patterns and create solutions by brainstorming again.
>> Read more: 5 ways to find your writing focus in testing times
4. Turn distractions into a pre-writing ritual
Sometimes distractions don’t stop you – they might actually help you to write! It’s like warming up ahead of exercise. You might need to stretch your writing muscles, especially if there’s been a long gap between sessions and you need to re-familiarize yourself with the project, for example, by reading or editing. Use those tasks as pre-writing rituals. The important thing is to time box pre-writing so it doesn’t take up the whole session.
5. Keep a worry diary
Often, what stops us writing is us – our own thoughts, worries and anxieties. If your mind is racing – stop, notice what you are thinking and write it down. It helps to acknowledge your worries so you can return to your writing. Then at the end of the session, go through and consider them. Are there patterns, reoccurring thoughts? Are some of them of a practical nature. If so, come up with a solution. If they are purely hypothetical then you can’t do anything about them now, park them and move on.
6. Write when you’re not in the mood
When we work with coaching clients we ask them how they feel when they write. 9 times out of 10 they feel much better after a session. So, if you’re not in the mood for writing, run an experiment to test that feeling. Give writing a go, you might surprise yourself and enjoy it. Set yourself a timer for 10 minutes then check in. Are you able to write? Yes – then carry on. If not, then stop.
7. Stop writing (and stop feeling guilty about it)
If you’ve run the test in 6 above and found that writing just isn’t working right now. Stop. Don’t force it. You’ve tried your best so you can step away from your project guilt-free and go and do something else. There’s no need to feel bad – now is not a good time for you to write.
8. Create an if/when-then plan for distraction
If/when-then is a mental model that beats distraction. It’s a simple sentence construction that creates a link in your brain making it easier to do tasks. For example, ‘if it’s a Tuesday evening, then I go to my writing group,’ ‘when my alarm goes off each day then I will write three morning pages.’ It acts as a cue to remind you of your writing commitment which means you’re more likely to keep going.
9. Practice obstacle thinking
We’ve looked back at distractions in tactic 1 and noticed them in real time in number 3 – now’s the opportunity to look ahead. Start big – what’s likely to get in the way of your writing project? Imagine all the obstacles you could possibly face – they could be external things like interruptions, or internal ones like doubt or fear. It helps to get really specific – think about your next writing session and where, when and what you’ll do and what will stop you. Once you’ve identified your blockers then you’ll be able to come up with a plan, which leads us to number 10…
10. If/when-then for overcoming obstacles
You can use if/when-then to overcome your obstacles. As in tactic 8, here’s some examples, ‘if I cancel a writing session, then I will immediately rebook another one,’ ‘when I need to do more research while I’m writing, then I will make a note and come back to it later.’ Whatever obstacles you face you can create a science-backed plan to overcome them.
11. Write or do nothing
Here’s a simple rule. When you’re on a writing session, you have only two options: write or do nothing. If you get stuck – sit with it. Don’t start doing something more fun at your desk and get lost down a rabbit hole of delay and distraction. Wait and see if it will pass. If it does, continue writing. If you find that you cannot write and doing nothing stretches on, then that’s your signal to stop and finish the session.
12. Take a break
If you’ve hit a wall with your writing – go take a break. Doing something different might give you the creative breakthrough you need. Move away from your writing space, ideally take a walk, look out of the window, breathe, relax, refresh yourself.
13. Listen to your body
Sometimes when we get stuck it’s our body telling us to move, to eat or to drink. Sitting is the new smoking, so tap into your needs and respond to them. You might need to get the blood flowing again – do some star jumps (especially fun if you’re in a library or café). Drink some water, treat yourself to a nice cuppa or eat something.
14. Have a nap
Writing is a higher order brain function – it’s exhausting! So do yourself a favour and give those grey cells a boost. Take a nap – put your head on your desk, recline your chair, jump into bed if you’re at home, – and grab 50 winks. Bonus tactic: the more frequently you nap the better the benefits. Research shows that people with a regular napping habit get more from their naps than infrequent nappers. Now that’s a routine I can get behind.
15. Take a nappuccino
Daniel Pink researched naps (I have job-envy) and writes about them in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. His advice for mastering a snooze is to add coffee. He said: “The most efficient nap is the ‘nappuccino’. Caffeine takes about 25 minutes to engage in your bloodstream, so drink up right before you lie down.” Set a timer, and you’ll wake refreshed and raring to go.
16. Remove distractions
Choice architecture is a technique from Nobel-prize winning behavioural scientist Professor Richard Thaler where you design your environment to influence the choices you make. In the same way that dieters reduce the temptation of snacking by hiding sugary treats from view, you can keep your distractions at bay by making alterations to where you write. When you next write, notice your visual, physical and virtual environment and remove things that distract you. Hide your to-do list, switch off the internet, or pop your phone in a drawer.
17. Leave distractions behind
Some people write at the same desk they do all their other work. Others write at home surrounded by the chaos of family life. Whether you’re being interrupted by colleagues or children, whether you’re pulled into meetings or to do the washing up, the best solution can be to write somewhere else. Go to another room, out to a café or library, or find a park bench.
18. Schedule your distractions
Distractions aren’t just doom-scrolling the news or hitting another level on a gaming app. Often the tasks we do are important, urgent and necessary – just not now. So schedule them. Time box when you answer emails. Build household chores into breaks. Give yourself time to write and fit smaller, less important tasks around it. You’ll make progress on your project without letting the rest of your life descend into chaos.
>> Read more: Finding time to write: the time boxer
19. Bribe yourself to write
Some people are inspired by rewards – for them, the promise of a prize drives them forward. Smaller incentives can keep you powering through on a regular basis. The important thing is to make the reward match the effort – so think about what small incentive will keep you focussed for a writing session. I often write first thing in the morning and breakfast awaits me on the other side. I feel I’ve earned my reward and no doubt appreciate my cup of coffee and hot toast even more for having waited
20. Punish yourself
If pleasure isn’t the thing to get you writing, then perhaps you need some pain. Behavioural scientists have found that ‘loss aversion’ to be a more powerful motivator than the promise of gains. In short, many of us would rather not lose something than gain something. If you want to tap into this powerful force for action, then try StickK a website set up by behavioural economists where you place a wager to complete a goal. How about Write or Die which deletes your words if you pause.
21. Take small steps
Ancient Chinese text the Tao Te Ching, urged people to “Accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” Modern psychology back this up. When we consider big goals such as writing a book, it triggers our amygdala – the brain’s natural defence mechanism – into taking fright. By focusing on small tasks, we can bypass the body’s fear system and begin to make progress.
>> Read more: How small steps lead to great progress
22. Find your starter step
If you get blocked and are not sure what to do next, brainstorm or mindmap starter steps. These are something very small that gets you going, for example, opening your notebook or naming a document. It’s not about doing any writing – yet – instead by keeping the bar low you’ll begin a routine and be able to keep it alive.
23. Scale back
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the task at hand. Take 20th century novelist John Steinbeck: “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another.” Adopt this approach by scaling back. Look at the behavior you want, like working every day on your 70,000-word novel, and shrinking it. So rather than write 1,000 words a day, write 10. Turn up every day, repeat and the routine will build. Over time you’ll increase how many words you write.
24. Concentration is cumulative
Starting small (see tactic 21) is great to get you going, but if you need to continue, you have to increase the time and effort. If you stick with writing 10 words a day it’ll take two decades to complete a first draft. Ramp it up slowly. Increase the time or wordcount little by little and soon you’ll hit your stride, as a writer friend of mine says, concentration is cumulative – you’ll be surprised how your focus improves each time you write.
25. Introduce constraints
Have you ever cleared your diary to write but when faced with all the time available, you fritter it away? Using constraints can keep you focused and productive. Reduce the time or the word count. For example, aim to write one paragraph per day then stop. Write for 30 minutes a day and no more. Writing constraints work by applying a little pressure, keeping your attention and providing boundaries.
26. Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management approach devised by Italian academic Francesco Cirillo and named after the tomato-shaped timer that inspired him. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals – he recommends 25 minutes separated by five minute breaks. You do two or three ‘poms’ then take a longer break. Repeat. To keep focus, during a timed session you should either write or do nothing (see tactic 11)
27. Quit mid-sentence
Do you ever find yourself churning over ideas while you’re working on a project only to forget them the moment you finish? The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological state discovered in 1920s Berlin when a researcher observed a waiter memorising complicated food orders. Supported by over 600 studies, it’s a state where people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones because their attention is drawn to them. The effect can be applied to writing, for example, by breaking off mid-sentence, a trick employed by writers as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Cialdini and Naomi Alderman.
28. Quit before you’re ready
While breaking off mid-sentence keeps your focus and attention on a specific task, quitting before the end of a session is a technique that keeps momentum going in the long term. You need to quit before you’re ready and deliberately stop your writing when you’re on a roll. When you feel most able to continue your writing – that’s the time to quit. Don’t wait until you’re tired and ready to wrap up as you’ll be past your best. If you really want to continue and know you can – if you feel impatient to continue – then that’s exactly the right time to leave it hanging for the day. Resist the urge to continue. However hard it is, do not to go back your desk. Mull over ideas in your head – but don’t go back.