The Writer’s Guide to Avoiding Distractions

Five tips to help you overcome distraction and be more productive

Steven Pressfield wrote an entire book documenting the difficulties for writers to simply plant their butts in chairs and get stuff done. He called it The War of Art, and as many scribes would agree, the effort to move from blank page to completed document is, indeed, a battle.

Often, distractions are to blame: You get a can’t-miss phone call; the fire alarm goes off at work; the menu from the new smoothie bar across the street has you drooling all over your keyboard. Whatever the case, these distractions have the potential to derail even the best-laid writing plans, and for those of us whose jobs depend on efficient wordsmithing, that’s officially no bueno.

Read on for five tips to help you win the battle against Resistance and keep the cursor moving.

Clear Your Workspace

There’s a reason why Marie Kondo’s theory on tidiness has taken the entire world by storm, and it’s about much more than having a sink that’s free of dirty dishes and laundry that’s washed and folded.

According to Kondo, clutter doesn’t just affect your living space—it affects your mind. So if you’re on deadline and desperately trying to knock out 1,000 words by lunchtime, understand that your first step actually has nothing to do with writing.

“When I am on deadline to finish a project, I have only that project in front of me,” says author, journalist and playwright Walter Meyer. “I move all notes—even my digital recorder, which likely has an interview for another story on it—out of my line of sight. The only things I have in my view are things pertaining to the thing I need to finish.”

Creating a distraction-free workspace also includes clearing your mind, says blogger and author Karen Koenig. “Don’t start writing while you have other deadlines and tasks hanging over your head. For example, if you promised to call your mother, need to make a doctor’s appointment, or have to do food shopping because your cupboards are bare, take care of business first.”

Use Tech to Your Advantage

Like dieters who can’t say no to an extra helping of ice cream, it turns out that we often have a difficult time mustering up the willpower to turn away from potential distractions (I’m looking at you, internet).

The bright side? The same world wide web that constantly beckons with promises of Real Housewives gossip and acrobatic cats is also equipped to stiff-arm us against those very diversions. Thanks to apps like Cold Turkey and Freedom, you never have to feign willpower again.

Copywriter Scott Sterling, who uses the Chrome extension StayFocusd, explains his process: “I set a time limit to screw around—15 minutes per day works for me—and add sites to the list on which I know I’ll waste time. Once the 15 minutes is up, StayFocusd will completely block those sites until my time resets again for the next day.

Remember Your “Why”

Entrepreneurs practice this exercise when they’re up to their eyeballs in debt, running on three hours of sleep and wondering if their seed of a business will ever grow roots and take off. When they remember the reason why they decided to sell the farm in the first place (whether it was to send the kids to private school, become independently wealthy or stop global warming), it makes it easier to stick through the tough times—because, inevitably, the tough times do come.

Author Griselda Benavides believes this process is just as effective for distraction-prone writers, and she employed it herself as she struggled to finish the manuscript for A Plenitude of Heartbeats last summer.

“Think about why you’re doing this,” she says. “Either it’s your job and you have to finish it, or it’s a passion or dream and [you have to] keep thinking of the finish line. That was my biggest motivation when I was finishing my novel, and what kept me going was Rebecca, my main character. I kept thinking of her, [knowing that] she wants to be read, but she won’t be read until I finish.”

Change Your Thinking

Even with the right mindset, and the right apps and a crystal-clear desk, distractions will likely still arise. The key, then, is to keep those distractions from becoming all-consuming, causing you to waste hours—instead of minutes—of time.

This is possible with a simple mindset shift, because when you view distractions as evil time-sucks instead of guilty pleasures, they become much less appealing.

“It’s all about what we believe,” says Koenig. “[It’s] not that a distraction is a welcome break from writing, which is boring or difficult, but that a distraction is an unwelcome intrusion into writing that is bringing you pleasure—and maybe paying your bills.”

Give In to Distraction (A Little)

But what if reframing your perspective and fighting against your natural urges to surf the net and walk the dog aren’t actually the best strategies against distractions? What if taking a break to watch a little TV (with a bowl of ice cream) can actually improve your word count?

“Distraction is essentially an unscratched itch,” says John Nesler, lead content writer and in-house editor for Sacramento, California-based Post Modern Marketing. “Just as leaving an itch unscratched isn’t a recipe for a great time, not dealing with distraction will hurt your productivity. So, if you’re distracted, you need to give your mind a break. Take a walk. Go sit down somewhere and eat a snack. Play a game on your phone. Scratch that itch for a few minutes, and then go back to work.” The trick here is to keep your scratching brief.

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