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How do you keep writing no matter what’s going on around you?

How do you avoid the distractions of social media, that dishwasher that needs unloading, that wash that needs putting on, that cup of tea you’re dying to take a break for?

How do you force yourself to write, even when it’s hard, keeping your mind completely focussed on the job at hand?

This question has haunted me since I first started writing and I’ve tried and failed with a variety of techniques and tools.

Then, a few weeks ago, my old university lecturer came to stay. Since we’re both at the same place with our respective novels (editing for our agents to submit to publishers in a month or so) it was a working visit. Our agents are waiting, time is of the essence, and writing paramount.

She forced me into a method of working I would never have considered before. It has tripled my productivity. So I wanted to share it with you as a Q&A in the hope that more writers can benefit from her idea.

Below is her solution.

What works for you? How do you maximise your productivity?

12

1. Find another writer who’s as anxious to increase productivity as you are.

Note: I’ve only tried this with other writers, it may work with people in other fields, but it does have to be someone who’s as dedicated as you are. Someone who won’t be tempted to derail the process with chit-chat and interruptions.

2. Install an internet blocking application that blocks access to non-essential sites for a specified period of time.

Note: I use FocusMe. It’s a bit crude but it works and it’s cheap. All social media sites are blocked but I can still Google and use the dictionary and thesaurus. BTW, I use www.powerthesaurus.org it’s great!

3. Schedule set days and times at each other’s houses or in cafes. Make sure everything you need is at hand before you start writing. You are not allowed to get up!

Note: We make sure we have our laptop chargers, snacks and drinks at hand, and put mobile phones in do not disturb mode.

4. Set the timer on your blocking application to 52 minutes.

Note: 52 minutes seems like a strange time but it really works for us. You may find it too short or too long.

5. When the bell goes, break. Have a natter, make a cup of tea, take a bathroom break, unload the dishwasher.

Note: You may find you don’t want to stop. We often don't. The ideal break is 8 minutes, but we break for longer if we need to. Just don’t let the break drag on. One of us always puts a stop to it.

6. Set the timer and go again. Aim for at least 4 sessions.

You’ll be amazed how much work you’ll get done in just 4 or 5 of these sessions. I don’t know why it works so well. I don’t know why it doesn’t work when I use the productivity software alone. There is something about having another dedicated writer in the room that prevents you from getting out of that chair for any reason, forcing you to churn out work for those 52 minutes. Perhaps it’s the sound of their furiously tapping keys that forces you to tap faster.

When my university lecturer left for remote climes, I tried everything to get that productivity back. I even posted her picture on the wall so she was staring down at me. It didn’t work. In the end, I suggested the technique to another writer friend of mine. She was very dubious as she always works alone, so I suggested a trial run. She is blown away by it. Like me, her productivity has tripled and she’s addicted to the process.

Give it a try and drop a comment if it works for you too.

Happy writing!

  • 1
    +1 for the great suggestions, but... "Perhaps it’s the sound of their furiously tapping keys that forces you to tap faster." The sound of others tapping keys sends me (and a couple of people I know) into berserker rages. Separate rooms may be necessary... or headphones with music blasting as loud as possible. – Sara Costa Jul 26 '18 at 16:09
  • Ha ha ha... the sound of keys doesn't bother me but my friend jiggles her knees and wobbles the table! That gets me, but I still keep going! – GGx Jul 26 '18 at 16:42
  • I've noticed some of these effects in a hackathon - we are all there at the table together, laptops and chargers all plugged in, surrounded by a mountain of snacks, and we have a hard deadline to finish the project. We'll often work in 45 minute to 1.5 hr bursts, followed by someone leaning away from their laptop with a heavy sigh after encountering something they can't get their head around. They get up for coffee and come up with the solution on the way back... and get right back to work. – Caleb Jay Jul 26 '18 at 18:22
  • I think if you boil that down, you're basically saying "work in an open-layout-office" with at least one like-minded individual; Of course, you don't have a boss (that isn't yourself), so you're also entirely accountable for what you're doing. And you're likely not working on the same project. But, you're making your space as work-like as possible; which is either a interesting revelation on my part or stating the obvious. Basically: Treat it like its a job. – Kirk Jul 27 '18 at 19:09
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How do you keep writing no matter what’s going on around you?

You can't (or you shouldn't). IE, there are times in lives where it will be important not to write. Some silly, but poignant examples:

  • You or your loved one is actively giving birth.
  • Someone needs to make dinner
  • Your social network has lost someone and the unit needs to grieve
  • Something about your life has dramatically changed (ie, you're about to move)
  • You are sick.

There are varying extremes to all of the above, some of which might grant you opportunities to write which would be healthy for you to take advantage of. But, interruption is not entirely preventable and it is not wrong to know when not to write.

This is the wrong question; the question should be: How do I maximize my writing time and ensure I do it often enough to be successful, however I may define success?

And the answer to that is that you need to have a few things:

  • Intention. You have to want to do. Not just that "I'd like to do this thing." want, but a serious emotional commitment to needing it. If you don't want it, then nothing will bind you to doing it. If you can't remember why you want it, then you should list out the reasons why, go full brainstorm. And inspect how you feel about each of those things. If you don't have the intention, then maybe writing isn't for you.

  • Ritual. Once you have intention, you want to establish some rituals (ie, common practices). These can be absurd: squeezing a rubber duck seven times, taking a cold shower, or going out into the shed in your backyard and placing your laptop upon a one-legged stool which you must balance to write. Or they can be practical: turning off the internet, going into your writing space, and opening up your word processor. The ritual that you need is going to be individual to you, but it will ultimately establish: space, time, and a writing medium. It may also establish or enforce specific goals. The ritual is the repetition that you will come to expect, that lets you into the writing mood. The ritual is only successful if it reminds you of your intention and gets your fingers moving and creating words. You may need multiple rituals: one for writing, one for revision, one for reading feedback, or other writerly tasks. Maybe you only edit in the evening and only outline in the morning. I don't know you, but you know you.

  • Time/Space. Different from a ritual, which is used to seperate pieces of time/space. After you have the intention you need to be able to carve bubbles of time & space in your life to write. I know people who only write surrounded by others and I know people who only write alone. But both of those types of people know their writing space and make sure they have enough time to get there. If you have intention and understand your task, then finding time is an equation. How much are you planning to write? What is your rate to get to a finished project? How fast do you want to do it (factoring in what you're actually capable of)? Ok, take the expected length to write and divide it into accomplish-able spaces of time and then do what you must to make those spaces available (including giving up things that are less important, this is where intention is important).

How do you avoid the distractions of social media, that dishwasher that needs unloading, that wash that needs putting on, that cup of tea you’re dying to take a break for?

For me, (I suffer from an internet addiction, even talking to you now is making it worse for me later), I must work from a space that is not tainted. I block every website (including this one from time to time) from being opened. Only by not having access to a site and hating myself for going to it will prevent it from distracting me. And even that is temporary. IE, it's a struggle. I have dreamed of creating a text only laptop with a unix operating system that only lets you write; but of course, I'm too distracted by other things and that would not be writing.

The more mundane things are easier for me. I talk to those around me and make sure there is time for the things that must happen (both the dishwasher and writing), but that when I am doing one it is not interfering with the other. At the worst I leave the house, go someplace without internent and work offline for a while. You can destroy your network drivers and have a laptop that can only have files transferred by thumbdrive.

How do you force yourself to write, even when it’s hard, keeping your mind completely focussed on the job at hand?

Sometimes you don't; if it's truly hard it may be because of some other underlying issue. Like, you're telling the wrong story; you forgot how to have fun; or you shouldn't be a writer. (If your intention tells you otherwise, then it's likely not that last one).

Focus is a skill and a state of mind, if you can't do it; then you need to practice it. There are forms of meditation that are non-religious, having a meditation practice helped me write 200,000 words by giving my mind a chance to chill out; it also gave me introspection, intention and the space to decide using those tools.

  • 1
    Feel free to edit my question if you like. I didn't mean to suggest that I wanted ideas for how to keep writing while squeezing a baby out of my vagina, or while my husband is screaming and bleeding to death in the hallway :). If that's how it comes across, please edit! You're the second writer who has suggested meditation, I will give that a try. Thanks! – GGx Jul 26 '18 at 17:13
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    Lol, I think it's reasonable, even necessary, to ask the question you're asking (or to have someone ask it) because knowing when not to write is as important as knowing when to write, because you have to know when not to do other things to make space for writing; conversely you have to know when not write to make space for other things so that you can have space for writing. No need to edit your question. :) – Kirk Jul 26 '18 at 17:15
  • It's a very good point. I'm quite obsessive and write long hours, sometimes 12-17 a day, 7 days a week. I chastise myself when I'm not writing and feel bad about it. Perhaps, if I was more mindful of when it's not time to write, it would set me free. And when it came time to write, I would be calmer and less distracted. I have never given this thought before. But I will now. Thank you! – GGx Jul 26 '18 at 17:22
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I don't think there is a better or worse way there is only the way that works for the person who is using it.

Personally I have a writing setting, a place, and a set of media, that defines the situation as "writing time". I sit down to write in the same place, in the same chair, at the same table, and have the same lighting and background noise, in my case a particular musical playlist that I find stokes my muse. This helps to keep me in writing mode when I'm in a mental space where writing can happen. I can't force that state to start, I need to be in an inspired frame of mind. When I am there is no distracting me from the work in front of me.

For my money no-one should ever try to write to a schedule. Inspiration can't be scheduled and writing that isn't inspired is pointless, so writing done for the sake of filling a time quota isn't, for me, worth much of anything. If you can write effectively under those conditions then more power to you but it would be worse than pointless for me to try. The only writing I have ever actually thrown out was the result of forced writing time at school.

To maximise my output I never edit or spell-check while I have new material to get on the page, I write until I'm out of material and ideas and then go back to the piece in a couple of days to do some heavy editing and checking when I'm in the mood to read rather than write.

  • 1
    Yes, better is the wrong word, I reworded the question. I haven't tried this technique while looking for story inspiration. I am editing and that's a completely different mindset. It may not work for me when drafting. But I've heard several writers say that inspiration can be scheduled. By sitting down at a specific time on a specific day, the mind, through habit, slides into gear and inspiration comes. I don't know. As I say, I've never drafted this way. You are fortunate that, once in your inspired frame of mind, there is no distracting you. I envy that. I'm easily distracted! – GGx Jul 26 '18 at 15:50
  • @GGx Yeah editing is a completely different kettle of fish, setting out a fixed no distractions, no excuses time for editing is a good idea I wish I had the discipline, I will most often put off editing until forced to it. I'll have to look into trying to set writing time again. I've never had any luck with forcing a writing routine, get the spark and write 5000 or more words in a couple of hours to the exclusion of all else, sure that's easy but consistently putting words on the page every week? Nope no dice. I've always accepted that as my process but maybe I don't have to. – Ash Jul 26 '18 at 16:06
  • Yes, maybe you don't. I would NEVER have considered this technique if my lecturer hadn't forced me to do it. And my writer friend wouldn't have if I hadn't forced her. It took us both by surprise. I thought I had my process worked out, but it turned out there was a better way for me. We are all different though. Which is why it's nice to hear from everyone about what works for them. I'll try anything! – GGx Jul 26 '18 at 16:46
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    @GGx I like to think I'll try anything once but I'm pretty sure that's not necessarily so. – Ash Jul 26 '18 at 17:14
3

I've got a lot of particulars when it comes to writing. I find that what keeps me working can vary immensely depending on the language I'm writing in, the genre, being on holiday or having to manage a few minutes out of a heavy work schedule, ... a ton of factors.

I believe the best advice one can give a writer who has trouble avoiding distractions is to 'know thyself'. What triggers the distraction? Perhaps you can't stand the idea of dirty dishes in the sink. Or maybe your mind starts wandering after x minutes. Perhaps seeing other people working eagerly motivates you to follow their example... or maybe it makes you feel frustrated and kills whatever creativity you had at the moment.

Once a writer understands what kills the mood and what strengthens their willpower, then they can establish a sound routine.

However, it is easy to run out of ideas and strategies, especially with a fickle muse. Reading about other writers' strategies can spark new ideas and help to mature one's own routine. The OPs suggestion of having a 'writing mate', for example, was new for me and I find it quite interesting, even if I can't really focus on writing when I'm sharing the room with someone else (but knowing someone else is working hard in the next room, on the other hand, might still work as motivation).

But let's talk about easily distracted minds. I'm one, and I'm not. If I have a scene burning inside me, I am capable of sitting at the computer and working for over eight hours without a stop. I won't notice hunger, thirst, not even a full bladder. Nothing will distract me. It's obsessive and, let's face it, unhealthy. But if I'm not sure how the scene will play out, then breathing itself becomes a distraction. I sometimes find that lying down in a dark room as if I were about to take a nap can get my mind a bit more focused. Either that, or I really end up napping and then wake up with a fresh mind. It's a win-win situation in any case.

In my particular case, I do not have one routine but a variety of them. The strategy that works best one month may be the worst option the following month. I'm erratic, you see. It means my routines are constantly changing and it's very often a matter of playing it by ear. More often than not, I simply change tasks. If I can't edit right now, I'll do some tidying and will go back only when my head feels alert.

One thing, though, I advise to all writers: know thyself. What motivates you, what frustrates you, what distracts you. Be aware it can be different things depending on your mood or the task at hand (planning, drafting, writing, editing, ...) and try as many strategies as it's sensible.

Remember, there isn't one right way for all, and there isn't one wrong way for all. Some of best loved strategies for writing are mood killers for me, and some of the most hated ones (in particular, editing while writing) are what keep me writing non-stop.


PS.: If housework distracts you, try to develop a hatred for it. Few things can keep me going at the keyboard as the burning desire to avoid certain house chores. Instant creativity booster.

  • you sound just like me! Obsessive at times to the point of unhealthy and erratic and distracted at others. The bed in the dark thing works really well for me too, I use that when I'm developing a story and brainstorming. I love your idea of nurturing a hatred for housework, I'm going to work on that! Also, to be more mindful of what creates a distraction for me each time, this is really good advice, I'm going to take note of what takes my mind away from the task. Thank you! – GGx Jul 26 '18 at 17:00
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I write when I wake up. Every morning, 365 days a year, with perhaps 2% exceptions for travel days. Even then, I have written on airplanes.

I work in 90 minute cycles, for both my job and writing. I always wake up early and spend 3 hours on getting ready to start actual work, about 2:15 of that is writing, or editing, or reading. Nobody else is awake at that time.

I don't really try to "maximize my productivity", when I write I am not in a hurry to get done, I don't have a word quota to reach. I can finish a novel (with several edit passes included) in about 9 months this way, but I don't set ANY time limit of any kind on myself; I am only committed to writing until it is done. I think deadlines and quotas are a silly thing to do, for me I would only disappoint myself, for no good reason. I trust that if I keep writing I will finish it, period. No need to discourage myself by setting arbitrary milestones I fail to reach.

I do the same thing in my scientific research; I explore ideas until I am done and I judge there is no more useful work to do. Half the time, that results in something publishable; and a few times, that has been something really important.

As for how to really maximize my productivity, that is just scheduling. I have cycles reserved for work, for cleaning the house, for yard work, for washing dishes or clothes, for paying bills, for our various entertainments, for everything.

We don't live a spontaneous life in this house, even the dog knows when it is time to eat or walk, to the minute. Although we can, if family or friends demand, rearrange our entertainment to allow for a simulacrum of spontaneity. And of course if emergency intrudes, we handle that by whatever means are necessary. Thus we have been (my family) for over thirty years.

The point of saying the above is that, when it comes time for me to write in the morning, Nothing else intrudes on my mind. There is nothing else I should be doing instead, nothing I need to worry won't get done if I don't do it now. It will all get done, in its time, every week or month or year.

2

I'm not exactly the same kind of writer, because I'm writing scenarios for full-scale roleplay games. I'm 99% sure there's no miracle : if you WANT to find a method that works for you, there is one thing you have to do at the very beginning of your work : putting pression on yourself. I'm not productive enough until the goal I want to achieve is important enough for me to forget the other things that get my addicted : online games, social networks...

And when you are working, make sure nothing can disturb you, or on the contrary make sure you can't be disturbed by anything. I'm often surrounded by people chatting, playing music, living their lifes and I don't even realize they're really there, sometimes even when they try to tell me something.

If your writing is important to you, you'll find a way. If you can't write anything, maybe it's not time, and forcing you to work will only lower your result quality.

1

Writing shares many aspects with other, more common, white collar jobs - creativity, time management, etc.

So many of the same techniques used by graphic artists, software developers, etc. can also be used by writers. As just one example, the Pomodoro Technique uses both work and break periods to help maximize productivity.

The Critical Chain method for project management attempts to minimize multitasking. When a resource is on the 'critical path' they can place a placard on their door or cubicle wall to indicate they are in critical chain mode and aren't to be disturbed by colleagues. They aren't supposed to answer the phone or emails except for one hour designated during the work day.

While these techniques are mostly suited for teams of people, some of the techniques can be adapted for individuals in non-conventional work areas, like home offices for example.

Working with others is certainly one external method for motivation but, I think, internal motivation is what most of us need to cultivate.

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