Beat distraction: writing productivity tactics to try when you can’t concentrate
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 write it down. Next, step back and think more broadly, are there things that often pull you off task? Note 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.
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, so 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, give it 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 writing just isn’t working right now. 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. Then get specific — think about the 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.
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 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.
19. Schedule time to write
When we researched how people fit writing into their life, scheduling a few sessions a week often led to significant productivity gains. Gain control of your calendar and block out time to write. Treat it like any other appointment. If you have a shared work calendar and colleagues don’t respect your writing time — call it something else, ideally something very boring.
>> Read more: Finding time to write: the time boxer
20. Find the best times to write
We call this our traffic light approach to finding time to write. First, grab your calendar or create a simple one with days of the week across to top and times of the day down the side.
- Block out all the times you cannot write. Think red. Now forget about these times — you’ll never be able to write in them so stop feeling bad.
- Find the slots that you might be able to write in — these are your amber times, so highlight them in yellow. Remember, these won’t be perfect times but you will be able to achieve something.
- Now, find your ‘go for green’ times, however brief they are. Go through the scheduler and colour these in green. These are the times you can most definitely write.
21. Prioritise your writing
If you have done the exercise in 20 above and found absolutely no time to write. Ask yourself if writing really is a priority at the moment? Sometimes other things are more important and that’s OK. If so, stop feeling guilty — you’ll come back to it soon when things are less busy. If it is a priority, then you need to treat it like one and give it the time and attention it deserves alongside the other activities in your life.
22. Reschedule other tasks
If you couldn’t find any time write, yet feel that writing is a priority, then you need to reprioritize other tasks. Grab your schedule from tactic 20. Consider all the appointments you have booked in. Can you reschedule other tasks to free up time? What can you stop doing or delegate? You need to be ruthless! Consider every task and compare it to your writing asking if it is more or less important.
23. Be spontaneous
>> Read more: Finding time to write: the spontaneous writer
If your life is unpredictable or booked from dawn to dusk, then scheduling won’t work. Abandon your calendar and get spontaneous instead. This isn’t about being wild and free, but instead involves being ready to write at the drop of a hat. Grab opportunities as they arise. Delayed trains, cancelled meetings, sleeping children — all these have great potential to inch your project on, moment by moment.
24. Make writing your ‘most important thing’
This is my go-to productivity trick. Every morning when I sit at my desk, I identify the most important thing I have to do that day. Just one thing. It might take all day to get to it, but it means I have a single target for the day. Today’s most important thing is writing this blog!
25. Make writing the highlight of your day
Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky take the concept of the most important thing and rename it ‘Highlight’ in their book . They wrote: “Asking yourself: ‘What’s going to be the highlight of my day?’ ensures you spend time on the things that matter to you and you don’t lose the entire day reacting to other people’s priorities. When you choose a highlight, you put yourself in a positive, proactive frame of mind.” And as we know, feeling positive about your writing will keep you going long term.
NOTE: One of my favourite tips for writers is “done is better than perfect.” This blog post is a work in progress — I am rushing to send out a version to our newsletter subscribers today. I have more tactics to share — watch this space. A new (perfect) version will go out in our newsletter very soon.
Originally published at https://prolifiko.com on March 25, 2020.