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!



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Ask Jenna: Isn’t reading a “real” book more important than writing my own?

I received an intriguing question from a reader the other day and asked for his permission to share my response on my blog. Who knows, “Ask Jenna” may become a “thing”! If you have a question you’d like to ask for the blog, feel free to submit it to my team via our contact form and I’ll put it into the hopper.

Here goes:

Ask Jenna: Isn’t reading a “real” book more important than writing my own?

Hi Jenna,

I just bought and watched your “10 Practical Tips for More Consistent, Productive Writing,” and since I was way too late to pose a question, I’ll ask it now.

In response to the question about what interferes with my writing, my first thought was, “Reading!”

Writers need to read; I know that.

But I love reading; I usually have 5 or 6 books going at once because I can’t wait to finish one before I start another. My list grows faster than I can keep up with it.

But it also interferes with my writing. It always seems to me that a “real” book is more important, more worth my time, than my own work-in-progress which may never appear outside my critique group.

How do I overcome THIS negative thought?

~ Michael


Dear Michael,

That’s a great question — and you’ve also raised a good point. Writers do benefit tremendously from reading (I have a big stack of books I’m reading through myself!) — it’s a critical part of learning about writing. But so is actually putting words on the page and struggling through the process of laboring over our own work.

Part of what I hear in your question is the notion that other people’s writing has more value than your own. Why is that? Yes, as a society we have agreed that published works are generally more of an accomplishment than unpublished works, and yet we’ve all heard tales of languishing but high caliber projects that one day get discovered.

But even underneath that, I suspect, lurks a deeper truth or deeper fear. And it reads to me like a combination of fear and self-doubt. The self-doubt is more obvious, “What if my project never lives up to the quality of this one?” and “What if this is never published, i.e. what’s the point of even working on it when there’s no guarantee of it appearing outside my critique group?”

When we ask ourselves questions like this, our subconscious minds love to get busy answering them and providing evidence that they are likely to come true. “See, there’s someone else’s project, it’s so much better than mine. And there’s another one,” and so on. Or in the case of the second question, it’s, “That’s right, I’ll never get anywhere. I heard that so-and-so never got their book published after years of working on it.”

We have to learn to ask better questions.

Here’s the thing. If we want better answers, we have to learn to ask better questions, like “How can I raise the bar on this project to get to the level of quality I want to see?” Or, “I wonder how I can increase the chances of this book being published?”

Then we start getting new, better answers and evidence.

We have to believe in our own value.

Just because you haven’t yet published a book doesn’t mean you don’t have something of value to say. In fact, your readers are waiting for your work and on some level, they’re suffering for the lack of it right now. It may take a while for you to clear the greasy sludge out of the writing gears and get going, but that’s all part of the process and completely normal.

I have a strong belief that if you’re called to write, you have something to say that’s important to get out there, even if you aren’t 100% clear on what it is yet. And it’s important to note that figuring it out happens through the writing of it, not the other way around.

We have to remember the practice of writing has intrinsic value.

Writing, as a practice, not an only an outcome, has its own intrinsic value. Writing teaches us how to write. Writing teaches how to live. Struggling to make it through the mid-point of a project, pressing on to the bitter end, seeing it through to completion — these are life skills that have lasting value. Through writing we learn that we do have what it takes to finish a project. We learn to trust ourselves. We find our voices and make them stronger, and clearer. We learn how far we’re willing to go into the depths of our work and what we can bring out of it. And we learn to go deeper, even when we’re afraid.

We have to learn to write through the fear.

And yes, let’s talk about the fear. Because underneath most reasons for why we can’t write is fear. Whether it looks like indecision about picking a project, boredom just when we get to the end, confusion when we struggle through the midpoint, or other books to read that are so much more enticing, usually what’s going on is that deep down, we are afraid to commit, afraid we’ll get it “wrong”, and afraid to face the demons and doubts that will come up along the way.

Writing is a tricky business. Our inner critics will do everything and anything they can to sabotage us at every step of the game — start to finish, beginning to end, and everywhere in between.

The answer?

Don’t listen.

It doesn’t matter what it’s saying, that voice of fear, but if it’s stopping you from writing, say, “Thank you for sharing” and get back to doing the work.

Let’s not stop here.

Because I always like to tackle the deeper underlying stuff AND integrate it with real, practical, take-action steps, here is something very simple and practical you can do to honor your love for reading and use it to help you get your writing done too:

  1. Designate a time for writing and a time for reading. Writing first, then reading.
  2. Make reading your reward for doing the writing.
  3. Rinse and repeat: Do it again the next day.

Your turn

What does this spark for you? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.



Thanks for reading.
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