writing advice: managing distractions and discouragement

Every Friday, I answer a reader’s question about writing, editing, or the writing process. I’m happy to take submissions via comments or email. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, send it in!

This week, a question about time management and logistics:

I have a problem staying on task when I write. I block out the time and sit down at the computer, but once I’m there I can’t stay focused. Everything seems more important and interesting than the thing I am trying to do. Plus, after I’ve gotten started, I get the urge to jump to another project. I don’t know how to finish things when they get hard. I get discouraged easily and want to do something else. Thoughts?


Oh, isn’t this the quintessential issue? It’s hard enough to make time for writing in the first place, but it’s even harder to actually work when you have the time. Some advice:

First, I would recommend getting really clear about what you actually want to accomplish. This might mean asking yourself if you really want to be a writer. You might need to ask yourself what kind of book you really want to put out or what story you want to tell.  Understand what makes you want to write in the first place. No matter what projects you’re working on, things are going to get hard. Being really clear about your motivation for writing will help you push through that difficulty to the result.

I don’t ever want to turn someone away from writing, but it may also be that you don’t actually want to write. You might actually want something else that is a tangential side effect of writing. If that’s the case, that’s totally okay–just go do that thing instead. If what you really want is to write screenplays but you heard it’s easier to write books instead, don’t waste your time on books. You’ll get a better return on your investment if you’re doing what you actually want to be doing.

Once you’re clear that you really want to be writing, set up your writing area to be as conducive to your writing practice as possible. The first thing I would suggest is creating a special space or location where all you do is write. We, as humans, respond so well to conditioning that a special writing location or writing music can help motivate us to get focused when sheer “willpower” can’t. Take advantage of this! See if you can condition a knee jerk response to get you over the hurdle of getting the first few words.

At this point, a lot of people would recommend actually removing the distractions, but I think it can be dangerous to drop that on yourself cold turkey. Before you actually cut the ethernet cords or buy yourself a laptop that’s internet free, I would suggest trying to figure out why you’re allowing yourself to be distracted in the first place. If you can do this, you might not actually have to take things away from yourself.

A lot of people use distractions to remove themselves from difficult feelings or responses. If you find yourself, for example, gravitating towards facebook in the middle of a difficult scene, you might be trying to avoid feeling uncertain about your writing skills or aptitude. If you simply remove the distraction, you’re going to be lambasted with those feelings and you’ll have removed the way you currently deal with them, which is not going to be productive. See if you can work on responding to that emotional impulse in a mindful way. You might find the urge to surf the web diminishes when you can self-regulate without outside help.

If you’re not motivated by avoidance, though, actually limiting your access to internet and other distractions might be a good move. You could get an old computer that just has a word processor on it. (If you go this route, make sure you also get a jump drive so you can get the files off of the old computer when its time to do something with them.) You can also look into programs like cold turkey, which turn off your internet access during a certain time. The key with this, though, is that you have to actually use it. Having a clear understanding of why you want to write in the first place can help motivate you, so don’t be afraid to come back to that when you find yourself getting stuck.

As far as the tendency to jump to new projects is concerned, I would suggest trying to figure out what’s motivating that behavior. Then, deal with it. You’re never going to get anything finished if you start an exciting new project every time the current project turns into a slog. Still, you’re exhibiting choosing to jump from project to project for a reason. Figure out that reason, and the solution might become more apparent.

If you’re simply overwhelmed by the amount of work, break the project into smaller chunks.  Don’t tell yourself that you’re writing a book if it freaks you out! Tell yourself you’re writing a scene. Or a chapter. Or a paragraph. Whatever. Take it one word at a time–that’s all you can write anyway.

If you feel a lot of internal pressure to do things right, release your expectations. Don’t worry about how good the words are. If you’re paralyzed by writing good words, write bad words. Just write something and fix it later. No one’s going to hold you to your first draft. And if you’re paralyzed by the word count, just focus on getting ten words or fifty words. Write a single sentence. If all you have in you on a certain day is a killer sentence, harvest it and go do something else.

If you’re just not feeling it that day, go do something else instead of starting a new writing-based project. You are not going to hit your target every day. As long as you don’t make a habit of it, no one is going to know that you took a day off here or there. We’re not content-producing machines, and each of us responds differently to stress, pressure, life events, and the unexpected. This doesn’t mean you have a free pass to go be lazy, but sometimes we need to take a day off. Don’t railroad your inclination and try to manufacture new energy by creating a new project. Just come back the next day.

And, if you don’t know why you’re tempted to start a new project, talk to someone about it. Or write about it. Figure it out. Sometimes just talking to someone about the patterns you see in your own life, picking them apart, asking questions, and working through your tendencies can help you figure out what the heck is going on with you. We’re so endlessly complicated. Sometimes we need help seeing the forest through the trees–and if you don’t have anyone in your non-virtual life that can help you with this, email me and we’ll set up a time to skype. Figuring yourself out is one of the absolute best things you can do to make yourself a better and more productive writer.



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