Ask Jenna: How can I stay more focused on my writing?

I received some great questions from one of our Writer’s Circle members the other day about staying focused on writing, and she gave me permission to answer them here.
 

The Question

First, here’s her question:
[I’d love some] tips for getting more focused when I’m writing. Several factors are at play, I’m sure, but probably the biggest ones are:
 
1. Internet Addiction. It’s a bad habit, but I am constantly checking for new email messages. Need to shut off the interwebz while I’m working, but I find that even if I do that I still find other ways to distract myself (getting up for water, making lists of other things I need to do, etc.)
 
2. Resistance. The usual. It’s easy to be excited and loose with my ideas when I’m not facing the keyboard, but as soon as I say it’s time to work I freeze up, get distracted.
 
Any tricks for combating these issues?
 
I feel like it’s just a matter of discipline, but even knowing that I still haven’t been able to make better habits. And, even more frustrating, it’s only when I’m working on my own projects — the things I should be MOST excited to have time for. If I’m writing for someone else (with a deadline, for money) then it’s not a problem because it’s just a task to cross off my list, so I do it.”

The Answer

Here’s my answer:
 
First, great questions, thank you. Second, here are some thoughts to get you started with this shifting all this:
 
  • For the internet: Experiment with being super ruthless about the rules (for now) about what you’re allowed to do or not. For example, turn off the internet connection while writing, close the email program, maybe even try the app Freedom to block access to all internet related stuff for a specific chunk of time.
  • Pay attention to all the things you distract yourself with and figure out a system for them so they can’t distract you. This is what I call “You-proofing your writing” (more on this in a future article). Don’t see these “distractions” as failures, but as parts of the puzzle to refine. Examples:
  1. If you typically find yourself getting up for water in the middle of a writing session, design a new routine to get a glass of water before you sit down to write. I keep a bottle of water next to all my writing spaces so can I refill my glass easily.
  2. For to do lists, consider a 5 minute purge of everything on your mind before you start working. Or keep a pad of paper close at hand so you can quickly jot things down and then get back to writing. I like to use the app “Things” to track my ideas and to dos, so I pop into that program and put things on the list if they nag at me while I’m writing. Yes, it’s better not to break concentration. But if it’s keeping me from focusing because I’m afraid I’ll forget it, it’s worth it to me to take a moment to get it down.
  3. Other distractions might include taking phone calls (turn off the phone if you can or have caller ID so you can see if it’s your kid’s school calling), having a messy desk (dump everything in a box!), people dropping by (put a sign on the door that says “Do Not Disturb”), etc. Think about the possibilities, notice when they come up, and see what you can do to anticipate them.
  • Be mindful of the distractions on an emotional level. For example, if email is your downfall, think about why you’re called to it. Are you looking for something in particular? I find that when I’m feeling vulnerable, I’m more likely to turn to email as if I can find solace there. It doesn’t work, and it’s worth seeing that I have an unfulfilled need so I can seek fulfillment for it elsewhere in its proper place. Or notice that you want to get up and get water right when you’re reaching a hard part of the project. How can you support yourself through that moment rather than turning away from it?
  • Understand your resistance: On a similar note, we “freeze up” because we get into flight/fight/freeze mode when tackle our own projects because our projects MATTER to us on a deep level. Being AWARE that distractions and things like finding it easier to work on other people’s projects are all part of the normal fears that come up about writing can make it easier to stick with it and navigate it, using things like:
  1. Setting super small goals so you can more easily talk yourself into doing them, e.g. 15 minutes. Then stick to it. You can increase the time the next day and beyond, but the idea is to create the habit around a strengthened comfort level first. So it might be slower at first but it will pay off over time. It’s a bit like building muscles up over time.
  2. Using a timer to help keep you focused for the duration of your writing session goal. I find I’m much less likely to get up or do other things while I have a timer running. It might seem silly or weird but it’s worth experimenting with.
  3. Talking or coaxing yourself through it. When you notice yourself getting distracted or feeling stuck, tell yourself, “Okay, this is just fear coming up. I know how to do this. It’s just putting one word on the page after the other, and I can even change it later if I don’t like what comes out. Just one word after the other.” Or something like that. Acknowledging the fear really helps. Discipline doesn’t help here as much as self-compassion does.

Your turn

Do you have a question? Submit through my contact form here and I’ll do my best to answer you on the blog.

Also, what do you notice about your typical distraction patterns? Post them in the comments and I’ll toss out some system strategies for you too!

Warmly,

 Jenna

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Comments

  1. fredrica parlett says:

    Jenna, this is a wonderful article. I can ignore email and I put myself in a room where I can’t hear the telephone. My distraction is looking at my writing and saying, I can’t do anything with this garbage. I just have to sit through that despair until my brain starts generating some ideas. Another problem for me recently is knowing when to stop — facing that I’m tired and need a break. Even these are just offshoots of what you describe as the fear of doing something you care about.

    • Thanks Fredrica for the positive response to the article and for posting a comment. :)

      Yes, that voice that says, “I can’t do anything with this garbage” comes from fear. The practice of reframing those negative voices on a regular basis, like we do in the Writer’s Circle, can help with that. I also find that writing early in the morning before I have a chance to really wake up tends to keep those voices quieter. My other trick, which you know of, is to sneak past the fear by only committing to write for a few minutes at a time. Usually my inner fear doesn’t get turned on by a little chunk of time.

      As for writing until you’re too tired, I would definitely set a target and set my timer, then when the timer stops, STOP. You can ratchet the target goal up or down depending on how you’re feeling before hand. But I would suggest no more than 90 minutes at once, maybe no more than 60.

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