Lately, I’ve been a highly distracted ferret creature when I’m supposed to be writing. I’ve got deadlines coming out of my ears right now, so I really need to focus and get my work done. But how??

I’m a firm believer in needing to be able to write wherever, whenever. When writing professionally, there’s no waiting for the mood to strike. Deadlines don’t care about moods. No, for me, it’s about forcing myself to focus. Once I’m focused on writing, it’s suddenly a lot more appealing to continue.

Here are a few things that help me with that:

1. Cut out social media.

This was a big one for me. I love being on Twitter and chatting with readers about books, but I have to be honest with myself: it’s a huge time drain. So I took a few small actions that have a big impact in my ability to focus.

I put an extension on my browser that blocks certain websites. It cuts me off Twitter (my real problem) after ten minutes. That gives me just enough time to respond to mentions, read a few friends’ tweets, promote books I love, and maybe tweet something myself. Facebook (less of a problem for me) is down to twenty minutes before it’s gone. It was only after I was forced to stop being on social media that I realized how much time I actually spent there, and how much more productive I became without it.

Also? I close my browser so it’s just not on. Out of sight, out of mind. If I want to look at the internet, I have to make a conscious decision to open Safari.

And, while I haven’t deleted anything on my phone yet, I did move all my social media apps to a separate folder on the very last screen, and I named the folder “ARE YOU SURE?” As in, ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO WASTE TIME YOU COULD USE TO WRITE? So far, that has been enough to shame me into putting my phone down. (Sometimes I just put my phone far away.)

2. Give myself different rewards.

I started out using social media as a reward for finishing a chapter, or after I’d hit a certain wordcount, or when I needed to pause and think. But once you’re on, you’re on. You know? (I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. . . .) And I wasn’t using social media time to think, anyway. Not about my book. So I started doing something else whenever I was ready to pause writing, but not finished for the day.


Haha, right? I’d be knitting anyway? True. That is true. But I’ve done this off and on over the years and I swear it works. When I pause to think, or I’ve reached a small goal, I let myself knit some on whatever I’ve got next to my keyboard. Sometimes, if I’m especially distractible, I knit a few rows after every hundred words, and then go right back to my next hundred words. I know that sounds silly, but I wrote almost 40,000 words like this over the winter holidays.

Your reward doesn’t have to be knitting. It can be whatever activity makes you happy, as long as you can do it at your computer and it doesn’t suck away your time. Make it something you can easily pick up and put down. (Some people use coloring books, for example.)

The point is that it is a reward, but it’s not so engrossing that you forget you’re supposed to be writing.

3. Headphones.

One of the best purchases I’ve ever made was for a nice pair of noise-canceling headphones. When I need to be in storyville, I cancel the noises, find a song or playlist that puts me into my book, and listen to that on loop for hours. And when that isn’t enough, I put on a hoodie that will block my peripheral vision.

Maybe not a great idea when writing in public? But at home, it really does make a difference for me. I can’t be distracted by cars going down the road, or even see much besides what’s right in front of me (my book). And on that note, I put my manuscript in full-screen mode so I don’t notice email or instant messages.

4. Being prepared.

I’m a lot more productive and focused if I know what I’m doing. If I have an outline for the day’s chapter, or a list of changes I want to make in my revision, I’m a lot more likely to complete those tasks than if I start my work day without a plan.

And, maybe this is key, I let myself stop when I’ve achieved those goals. I used to just keep going and going until I was exhausted and had no idea what came next, but I know myself better now. Just because I can keep writing doesn’t mean I should. Putting up for the day will give me a chance to mentally prepare for what I want to write the next day.

And this kind of leads me in to . . .

5. Completing other tasks.

When my surroundings — physical and digital — are organized, I feel more organized. For example, if I have an inbox filled with requests and reminders for other things I’m supposed to do, those tasks are fluttering around the back of my head when I’m supposed to be writing. When my desk is a mess, that’s all I see.

Tidying those spaces helps a ton. So, before I begin a draft or revision, I clean out my inbox. I read friends’ manuscripts if I’m supposed to critique them. I catch up on sorting my receipts. I reorganize the yarn on my desk. I cross all the easy, immediate stuff off my list.

Maybe it takes a couple of days to complete all that, but it quickly decreases the mental clutter. That way, when I need to devote all my brain space to my book, I can.

What about you? What are some tricks you use to help yourself focus when you’ve suddenly turned into a ferret?


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Julie C. Dao is a proud Vietnamese-American who was born in upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her Kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is her debut novel. Julie lives in […]


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