Focus and the Distracted Writer

I just spent the last month revising two very different short stories, both aimed at markets with looming deadlines. Coming off the post-holiday distractions, I was confident that neither story would take much work (I was wrong) and a whole month seemed like plenty of time to get my work done (I was right, but it wasn’t as much time as it seemed!) But I took a deep breath and dove in. I got done most of what I wanted to accomplish last month and feel pretty good about it.

Like most of you, I always have at least five or six projects in the hopper at once, and figuring out which one to work on can make me cross-eyed. I love them all and want to give them my full attention, but that just isn’t possible. Setting up five computers on my desk to work on them all at once is also impractical.

So here are five coping strategies I employed to get my work done this month. Of course, what worked for me may not work for you, but I hope you’ll find some of these things useful.

1) Prioritize. External deadlines are helpful, here: market’s got a short reading period, anthology is about to close, etc. If you’ve got a story almost ready to go, spend a little time polishing and get it out there!
Sometimes, though, you’re not gunning for any particular timeframe, and you’re neck-deep in a story you love and keep tinkering. I suggest you give yourself an internal deadline so you aren’t tempting to noodle with the story endlessly. You need to move on to your other projects.
As above, I like to polish up the ones that are close and send them out so they can be earning inks, rejections, and maybe even acceptances while I work on the stuff that’s less developed.

2) Keep Notes. Exciting ideas flit across my brain, and my inner cat wants to go pouncing after every bright flash of color. Old toys? Boring. Bring on the new shiny.
This is why I keep lots of analog and digital notes (mostly I use either my favorite Moleskine or Evernote). New story ideas are always going to crowd in and tempt you away from what you should be working on. Some of these great ideas will tell you they are better than anything you’ve ever thought of before! Nod politely, make a note or two, and tell them you’ll talk again later. If they’re really that good, you won’t forget them.
It’s worth mentioning that the project you may be struggling with at the moment probably started out as one of those distracting ideas. Keep that in mind.

3) Keep a Daily Task List. Gasp! This sounds like organizing! For some people, this sort of thing comes naturally. My wife, for one. She makes lists like no one I’ve ever seen, and stays on top of her projects. Her culinary training is especially useful here, with its time-critical production lists.
I took a page from her, and kept a daily tally of the things I needed to complete: Scene A, Scene B. 300 new words, etc. Your own deadlines (see #1 above) will obviously help you set your priorities, here.
Your list doesn’t have to be complicated. There are all manner of to-do apps and methods. A list on a simple sticky note will suffice. Be sure to cross off each step as you complete it, too. It’s very satisfying.

4) Routine. The real key to success at anything is to dedicate that hour or two (or more!) to practice. For best results, pick a time that works for you and stick with it. For me, getting up and writing an hour or two before work is when I get my best work done.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have an extra incentive to cement that routine. I got several different varieties of loose-leaf tea for Christmas and spent my January mornings sipping them while I worked. There might be other incentives for you: playlists of inspiring music, a piece of pie, a chance to wear your super-writer’s cape…

5) Sleep and exercise. I can’t stress these enough. It’s important to get your rest. I sometimes have bouts of insomnia, or a run of busy nights when I just can’t make it to bed before midnight — but I know that regardless, I have to get up at 6am or so and get my work done. But more than that, I just don’t get my best work done when I’m tired all the time. It can also be tempting to forego sleep for work. As deadlines loom, this may even become necessary. But I’d advise delaying this step as long as you can.
Exercise is just as important. I’ve discovered biking, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to commute to work by bike. I don’t get to ride in every day, but even regular walking is enough to keep the blood flowing and the mind sharp.

I’d love to hear some of the ways you keep your focus when the going gets rough.

Trackback URL


  • Luna Flesher Lindsey

    For me it was coming to accept the fact that it’s ok to skip Twitter. Social media gives people an average 7 second attention span.  My constant drive to make sure I was “caught up” on Twitter made it impossible to concentrate on my novel, even when I was trying hard NOT to check Twitter.  I would stare at a paragraph for 8 seconds, then check Twitter.

    If you’re from a corporate environment where looking busy was as important as being productive, it’s hard to flip that switch to stare at a page or out the window for the long minutes it sometimes takes to figure out how to solve writing problems or think of words or imagine scenes.  Twitter feels productive, but is not.  Ramping up to writing does not feel productive, but it is.

    So basically, if I want to have a productive week, I take a Twitter day off.  I am not even allowed to check Twitter, not once on a break.  But No! my mind screams.  I might miss something!  And that is the point.  To let go of the idea that I should never miss anything on Twitter.  As my attention span goes up, so does my emotional reward for getting things done.

    Another big boogyman is politics.  If I am in a political dialog via email or forums someplace, my mind will spend every ounce of dopamine thinking about my replies, even if I’m not currently writing one.  I have to isolate myself from political thought in order to be productive.

    • Good points, Luna! I always shut off Social Media when I’m working. And I take frequent breaks from it too (sometimes weekends off, sometimes during the week.)

      I’ve always found the conversation is waiting for me when I’m ready to go back! 🙂

  • Paul Weimer

    I turn off the distractions and force myself to ignore them. Turn off the twitter, turn off music, sometimes.  Willpower, and force myself to get the writing done. 

    I accidentally missed a public radio show I like last Saturday because of my dedicated focus to get some book reviews done because of this. D’oh!

    • it’s a good thing we have podcasts, Paul or I’d miss a lot, too 🙂

  • Luna Flesher Lindsey

    Oh, I just remembered one more tip! This helped *so* much.  I also use http://e.ggtimer.com, which is a site with a simple timer.  I set it to 60 minutes.  During that 60 minutes, if I switch to my browser, I see it sitting there blinking at me, and I know if I’m using the web, it better be to look up a word or research a subject specific to my work.  If I do get distracted, it’s sitting there in a tab counting down the time at me loudly.

    This also helped increase my attention span to 60-minute intervals.  And on days when I have trouble motivating, I have a very simple goal.  Sit in the chair thinking only of my project for 60 minutes.  An easy goal, and one I find myself out-pacing every time.  At the end of resetting the timer 4 or 5 or 8 times and losing count, I have something to “show” for me efforts.. a feeling on concreteness, not just a vague X-hour blur, where maybe I was working or maybe I wasn’t, but 4 one-hour blocks of focus.

    This timer is very useful because you can bookmark links, and the URLs are intuitive for changing the time settings.

  • Wayne Whitworth

    I read Stephen King’s book “On Writing” this weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed it; he kept it interesting, and it is a fairly quick read. He gave very practical advice about writing and wove his biography into the book along with his own tragic story of being run over by a van while he was taking his daily hour walk. As a fellow walker and bike rider (as Andy promotes), it certainly woke me up to the hazards of traffic. I picked it up in a used book store in Nashville. Great article Andy!…Wayne Whitworth (Carol’s cousin).

    • it’s a great book, Wayne, thanks for reminding me. I need to re-read it 🙂

  • Pingback: SF Tidbits for 2/14/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog()

  • Anthony Lanni

    I write at the coffee table in the living room – 8 feet from a giant T.V.  Social media doesn’t distract me, I don’t write with music, and I’m totally cool with having 4 different documents open and switching between them as different ideas take hold.  But that damn T.V. – man, that thing kills me.  When I wrote a ton of stuff between Christmas and New Year’s, it was all because I put the remotes out of reach and just wrote.

  • Pingback: New and Interesting()