How to Avoid Distractions
by Dan Parsons
For writers, distractions are everywhere. They’re in our homes, our friends – even that pile of laundry (you know the one). And technology has only made the problem worse. It’s whittled human attention spans and recalibrated our brains to crave dopamine hits over the delayed satisfaction of rewarding work. The “internet of things” has weaponised practically every object we own with notifications that can derail our focus.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. Charles Dickens couldn’t waste hours scrolling through memes on Twitter. Jane Austin didn’t do anything “for the Gram.” And Leo Tolstoy would never have felt the need to Google “what is a TikTok?” Yet all of these greats struggled with procrastination just like the rest of us.
We are walking paradoxes: we want to do nothing but write when we don’t have the time, and anything but write when we do. That’s because writing is a pleasure but it’s also work – harder than Netflix or Reddit or cleaning out the garden shed.
Thankfully, however, you can make writing easier by improving your focus and willpower. In this post, we will outline some handy tips you can use to identify and avoid your worst distractions. That way, you can rein in your impulses and get more writing done.
TRIAGE YOUR TO-DO LIST
When looking to remove distractions from your work it’s helpful to remember the following equation:
Busyness ≠ Productivity
Let’s look at a common but unproductive working day to show you what it means.
1. You wake up and plan to do a lot of writing.
2. First, you decide to check your phone. Emails and chat messages have accumulated overnight.
3. There’s a “time-sensitive offer” that you need to jump on right away.
4. One of your family members needs help.
5. Of course, you should check your KDP dashboard before you get started.
6. Oh, and ACX, Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, Ingram Spark, Smashwords and Findaway Voices.
Before you know it, it’s lunchtime and you have a mild screen-induced headache. Perhaps you’ll go for a walk or cut the grass after food. Or do some marketing because it’s less taxing than writing a scene. That chapter you planned can wait until tomorrow… again.
See the problem? As New York Times bestseller Gretchen Rubin once said, “Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.” You can spend a whole day being busy without making any meaningful progress. To avoid this pitfall, you need to triage your to-do list, preferably before bed or first thing in the morning. That way, when you get out of bed, you know what to focus on and what to avoid.
Try creating a to-do list in priority order. Don’t allow yourself to skip ahead until you’ve finished your top one. Your brain will try to justify changing the order when it faces the work but you shouldn’t let your impulses take charge. Stick to the plan and do what’s important and you will see meaningful progress.
FAVOUR PRODUCTION OVER CONSUMPTION
Some authors seem superhuman. They publish a book a month alongside a high-flying day job, yet still manage to watch TV shows, read books, play videogames and maintain a thriving social life. They consume a lot and, therefore, overflow with ideas and inspiration which they channel into their own books.
Many inexperienced writers witness this lifestyle and misinterpret the flowchart for success. Indoctrinated by the famous advice that great writers are great readers, they attribute all the consumption to the bestsellers’ prolific output, not realising that they often consume content for pleasure as a reward after a productive day of writing.
By consuming movies and books before you start your day’s writing, you deplete your mental bandwidth, putting off writing to later in the day when you might not have enough energy and willpower to hit your wordcount target. While amateurs suffer from inertia, avoiding their manuscript but not consuming anything because they “should be writing”, the pros just write with no excuses. That way, they have more time for guilt-free consumption.
LEARN JIT, NOT JIC
JIT is an acronym from the corporate world. It stands for “just in time” and refers to a process in which companies receive stock only when it’s needed rather than holding it for months. Doing so enables them to reduce warehousing costs. Here, however, we will apply it to learning. That’s because excessive education can needlessly cost you time you could otherwise spend writing.
Most people are predisposed to learn on a JIC basis – “just in case” rather than “just in time.” We spend the most productive hours of our day listening to digital marketing podcasts when we don’t yet have books to market. We read guides on selling movie rights just in case we ever need to know the potential trip hazards. We take online courses on using blockchain to sell direct even when we haven’t yet mastered selling on Amazon.
Learning is fantastic, but preparing for an eventuality that might never occur is a distraction and a waste of time. After all, what’s the point of learning to code a mobile game to accompany your bestselling novel if, a) you haven’t yet written the book, and b) you will forget most of what you’ve learned and have to re-learn the skill when you actually need it? A more efficient approach would be to learn the skill at a later date just in time so you can use it while it’s fresh in your mind.
Next time you consider losing a few days or weeks to learning a new skill, first ask yourself if you’re learning it just in time to complete a task that will advance your career, or if you’re wasting your time just in case you need it in the future.
An effective way to strengthen your focus is to remove tempting distractions from your immediate surroundings. Multiple studies prove this strategy to work well, even against addictions. Want to stick to a diet? You’re more likely to succeed if you fill your kitchen cupboards with healthy foods and skip the chocolate isle at the grocery store. How about quitting smoking? Don’t hang out with smoker-friends. Want to stop gambling? Delete gambling apps from your phone and meet friends in a coffee shop instead of a casino. You’ll still get tempted, but you will be less likely to relapse without the visual stimuli.
Likewise, if you want to avoid the internet, switch off your computer and write using a pen and paper. If you need to, you could even put your phone on airplane mode and store it in a drawer until you’re done writing so the notifications don’t cause you to cave. Hand-writing your manuscript may not meet your usual words-per-minute typing speed but the consistent progress you make by not checking social media every few minutes could outweigh that handicap. Plus, the consistency will enable your brain to settle into the flow state and stay there, meaning you will enjoy your project more and spend more hours working on it.
Environment can affect human productivity on creative tasks more than many people realise. For example, those who have spent most of their adult lives commuting to work are able to be productive in the office but discover that they struggle to match that same intensity at home. Often, this is because their brains have associated home with relaxation and frivolity so they can’t focus on work in the same place where they eat, sleep and watch TV.
If you have experienced a similar phenomenon, there are ways to train your brain to associate your kitchen table or the office in your spare room with work so you can write effectively in those spaces. Just some methods include:
– Listening to the same soundtrack every time you write
– Keeping the space clean
– Only ever using that spot to work
However, if you need to be productive for a deadline right now a faster way to manufacture your productive day-job mindset is to form an artificial commute. Coffee shops and libraries are effective work spaces for writers because they provide this consistency. Writers leave their home – where they relax and play – to work in a place where they can’t lounge and watch Netflix or justify a need to do the dishes. Not everyone can afford this luxury but, if you can, a few coffees are a small price to pay for writing a book that could make you thousands of dollars.
The tips outlined in this blog post aren’t an exhaustive list, but they are a valuable pathway into the topic of author productivity. Follow them and you should see a boost in your writing speed and an uplift in your attitude to writing.
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