Perhaps you’ve managed to get into the habit of writing every day, but you’ve also acquired the distraction habit. You sit down at your computer, fire up your word processor and type a couple of sentences – but then an email arrives, and once you’ve replied to that, you check Twitter and Facebook … then a friend rings to chat about weekend plans.
After an hour-long “writing session” your output is a few sentences, none of which seem particularly good. You need to avoid distractions if you want to write fast and fluently, following four simple steps:
Step 1: Work somewhere quiet
The biggest move towards avoiding distractions is finding somewhere quiet to work. It doesn’t need to be silent, but it should be free from people who’ll wander in and interrupt. Not everyone can write easily at home: if you have young children, or if you still live with your parents, you might struggle to persuade everyone to leave you in peace to write.
If you can, get out to a public library – or if you’re in college, use the library there. The quiet atmosphere will help you to write. Alternatively, some freelancers rent shared office space: yes, you’ll have to pay rent, but if you manage to fit in an extra five or ten productive hours per week, it’s probably worth it.
Step 2: Get comfortable
Once you’ve found a good spot to work, make sure you’re not going to be distracted by physical factors. Sit somewhere comfortable, with a good desk and chair, and have your monitor at the right height (level with your eyes.) You might want to get a gel pad to rest your wrists on whilst typing.
Keep a bottle of water at your side, along with some snacks: you don’t want to stop half an hour into your writing session because you’re thirsty and hungry. If you drink a lot of tea, coffee or cola, get your caffeine fix in too … feeling sleepy or headachy won’t help your concentration.
Step 3: Turn off electronic distractions
So, the environment around you is perfect: quiet and calm, with food and drink within reach. Now it’s time to consider mental, rather than physical, distractions. With most of us writing directly onto computers, there are a huge number of electronic diversions that need to be put aside during a writing session. You can’t write well if you’re constantly flicking between your writing, Twitter, Facebook, Firefox, messenger windows, the front page of Digg…
Turn off any instant messaging programmes and close your email client. Switch off your mobile phone (especially if you’re in a library!) Some writers, myself included, prefer to unplug their internet connection altogether whilst writing – I’m offline as I type this. Others use a program such as WriteRoom or, for PC users, Dark Room.
Step 4: Set a stop time for your writing
The final step is to set an end time for your writing session. If you try to write for a whole afternoon, you’re likely to procrastinate and get distracted; instead, give yourself an hour and see how much you can achieve. Set an alarm on your computer to alert you once the time is up.
You’ll know that this works if you’ve ever had to rush to meet a deadline. Did you surprise yourself with how quickly you could write that essay or report, when it was due within a couple of hours? And do you find that you speed up before a break (such as lunch-time) to finish whatever you’re working on? This is called the “end effect” by time coach Mark Forster, who recommends working for short, timed periods to take full advantage of your mind’s ability to use an imminent deadline for focus.
During your timed period, if thoughts like “I should check my email” or “I wonder what everyone’s saying on Twitter” come up, pause for a second or two and dismiss them. You can check all of these after your end-of-session alarm goes off. Stick with your writing, and you’ll be replacing the distraction habit with the focusing habit.
What techniques have you used to avoid distractions in your writing? Have you found any tips and tricks which are especially effective?