One of the most common – and annoying – aspects of maintaining a writing practice is dealing with distractions. Especially when you’re working on a deadline or immersed in your latest work-in-progress, distractions are not very welcome. They can interrupt the flow of thoughts that you need to put down on paper. They can disrupt your momentum, slow you down or make you lose your place in your manuscript.
I suppose distractions can have an upside too, although that’s rare. For example, they might help you notice a plotting problem in your story while you’re away paying attention to the distraction. Or they might inspire a new story idea. Still you need to get back to the task at hand.
Minimizing distractions is important for writers because good writing requires time and focus, writes Joyce Carol Oates on the Masterclass. Without that time and focus, the writing will lack clarity and impact.
In my experience, I’ve noticed five types of distractions.
1. Physical environment. Room temperature and uncomfortable furniture can make you lose your focus. A messy desk can be a sign of a cluttered mind. Outside noise, like construction and leaf blowers can disrupt your thoughts.
2. Familial environment. If you have kids, they may be curious about the work you’re doing, and pets may want your attention when you want to work. If you live in a condo building, neighbors may start renovations in their units that requires drilling and vacuuming. The occasional ambulance with its blaring sirens can disrupt your thoughts too.
3. Technology. Electronic devices, such as your phone and laptop, can tempt you when you should be working. You might be tempted to work with the TV on to keep an eye on a baseball game or catch up the latest breaking news. Social media is always a temptation because writers have a need to know what’s going on in their world.
4. Internal noise. These are the voices and conversations inside your head that may have nothing to do with your work. You might experience negative thoughts, replay arguments you’ve had or worry about upcoming events. You may be more focused on your worries and fears that you lose track of what you’re supposed to be working on right now.
5. White noise. Part of the background most of the time, white noise has little impact on your writing progress – or it shouldn’t. It might be the ticking of a clock, passing traffic from the expressway near your house, or the drone of a plane flying overhead.
Distractions, in whatever form they take, are inevitable. But you can minimize the impact they have on your writing practice. Here are a few suggestions to do that.
1. Identify the distractions that affect you the most. Before you can reduce distractions, you need to know what they are, according to the Author News blog at Penguin Random House. Take note of what is taking your attention away. Is it a pesky pet who insists on sitting next to you on your desk as you work? Is it the constant barrage of emails and phone calls that distresses you? If there’s one particular distraction that is bothersome, then find ways to remove that distraction. Perhaps move the cat to another room, or set aside a specified time to respond to emails.
2. Set office hours. Most successful writers treat their writing like a real job with set hours. Those steady office hours let others in your household know that you are busy during that time and cannot be interrupted.
3. Know your productivity hours. Every writer has a prime time for writing, where they feel at their most creative and productive. It could be during the early morning, or it could be late at night before you go to bed. Establishing a regular writing session during your most productive time of day can help eliminate unnecessary distractions.
4. Put away your electronic devices. This might be easier said than done. Most of us rely on our computers and phones to get our work done. But do you really need them for your writing? I’m a big proponent of writing longhand on pads of paper. I find it easier to brainstorm blog post ideas and fiction scenes that way. I can draft scenes in a heartbeat with only a pen and paper. Using a computer or phone to write or research might feel more productive – as long as you stay on task – but it can also be tempting to check your emails and your social media accounts. I recommend turning off the TV as well. The focus should be entirely on your writing.
5. Keep a neat, tidy desk. Put everything in its place and use only the materials you need to get your writing done. When writing my blog posts, I have my file with my blog calendar and list of story ideas, a lined note pad for drafting an outline, and a pen. I find that a clutter-free desk translates to a clutter-free mind. It’s also important not to have other tasks and deadlines hanging over your head, say experts at Mediabistro. Take care of those details before you begin your writing session so they don’t creep up on you while you write. Need to make a doctor appointment? Make that appointment now before you begin writing.
6. Reward yourself. If you still struggle to keep distractions to a minimum, try this experiment. If you’ve managed to stay away from the Internet and social media during your writing session, reward yourself with a social media hour or an hour of internet browsing or online shopping. If writing is your real job, then treat social media as play time. It’s what you do when you’re done with your work day. Knowing that you have a full hour of social play time waiting for you at the end of your writing session might be enough to keep you focused on the writing task at hand.
Distractions are a normal part of our work days, but you don’t have to let it ruin your writing practice. Start by identifying the pesky distractions that bother you most, then take action to minimize their impact. You’ll find you have more head space to produce better quality writing.