Self-Discipline for the Distracted Writer

Recently, I wrote here on Pub(lishing) Crawl about persistence and the importance of not giving up on your writing. If you’ve been a longtime reader of this blog and its predecessor, Let the Words Flow, you know that Susan Dennard has written several great posts about her BICHOK approach to getting work done. (BICHOK = Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.)

But what if you are being persistent and your butt is in the chair, and still you aren’t making progress with your manuscript?

Consider this scenario: You reserve a block of two hours to write, and you are at your desk right on time. You open the file. You stay at that keyboard for the full two hours, and when your time runs out, you find you have only a paragraph or two to show for the time you spent.

I hate to say this, because we writers like to think of our spirits soaring free and the muse carrying us along. However, if you’re in that chair and nothing new is showing up on the screen, you may have to work on your self-discipline.

All writers know about the hazards of the shiny internet with all of its pretty windows. Who wouldn’t be distracted by the alluring birdsong of Twitter? And we all must check our phones every ten minutes or so. How else will we know how much time is left in the two hours we’ve dedicated to writing?

All joking aside, distraction is a major hindrance to your writing success. Limiting distraction can be a very daunting task, but if you’re serious about completing your manuscript, you will step up to the challenge.

Here are three suggestions to help you focus:

Set a timer. A timer forces you to start, and starting is often the biggest obstacle. Personally, once I start, I have a hard time stopping. A timer forces you to start immediately.

You can use a kitchen timer. (Mine goes up to 60 minutes and rings a loud bell when the time is up.) You can use the timer on your microwave if you’re near the kitchen. Your cell phone has an alarm. The key is to set a timer for a specific amount of time – even as little as 15 minutes – and do nothing but work on that draft from the first minute to the last. If you’re like me, you may find that once you start, just stopping long enough to turn off the alarm is a nuisance.

Disconnect the internet. I find that when I sit down to write, the first thing I do is check my email. Then I check Google News. After all, those things are important, right? Of course they have importance, but they should not be allowed to intrude on my writing time.  To help me stay away from that “quick peek” at Twitter that becomes an hour, I unplug the power from the back of the wireless router. Then I sit downstairs so reconnecting it will require a trudge back up the steps. Of course, if other people are using the internet in your house, you may be forced to simply turn off the connection for your own laptop. There are also programs online, such as Freedom, that will “lock” you out of the internet for a pre-set period of time. (Interestingly, most of the endorsements on Freedom’s website are from authors!)

Plan a “Power Hour” with a writer friend. Agree on a start time when you will both begin writing. At the appointed time, both of you (or all of you if you include several friends) begin to work. At the end of the hour you can take a break and get in touch to compare accomplishments. (Another version of this is the “Word War,” where the object is to rack up the highest word count in a given period of time. These are popular during NaNoWriMo. Click here to read about a Word War that was live blogged on Let The Words Flow last November.)

These are just three ideas, but they can make a huge difference in your productivity. I’ve tried them all and regularly fall back on the timer method to get myself locked in and focused.

Of course, there are many other ways to improve your focus and self discipline. What works for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

  

17 Responses to Self-Discipline for the Distracted Writer

  1. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 5:58 am #

    Hey there! Please comment! I’d love to learn your thoughts. Just a heads-up, though – I will need to be offline all day until evening on the US East coast. So I may be slow in replying to comments, but I promise to catch up at the end of the day. Thanks!

  2. Adriana Oct 1 2012 at 6:28 am #

    The Internet is definitely a major hindrance to my writing, I’m so easily distracted it’s not even funny… And you’re right, there’s always that one little other thing I just HAVE to check before I start writing… for two hours lol I’ll definitely be trying your technique. Thank you so much!! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:13 pm #

      Hey Adriana! It’s so funny how we justify those “quick checks.” I hope my suggestions help you!

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Oct 1 2012 at 8:01 am #

    When my favorite TV show ended in January, on a very unsatisfactory note I might add, I was motivated to do something I’d only done once before, write a story to clear up the loose ends that the show had left dangling. Since then I’ve written many other fanfictions. I hit upon a useful strategy to keep me focused on my MS at the same time, called self-ransoming. I only allow myself to write another fanfiction chapter (which I really want to write, because I’m a fan!) after I’ve written another thousand words in my novel.
    I finished my novel (Ghostkiller) yesterday. Fortunately I have another I’m 7 chapters into, to take up the slack.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Hey Marc, I LOVE the idea of self-ransoming! I may try that myself. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  4. Anna J. Boll Oct 1 2012 at 8:27 am #

    So true! Of course I’m here reading because your post showed up in my email inbox which I HAD to check before writing. The power of the chain is that each link we follow takes us farther from our work making us cyberslaves.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:16 pm #

      Hi Anna! It’s funny how I will unplug the router to keep me off the net, because I can’t just use willpower. Cyberslaves indeed. 😉

  5. Leigh Smith Oct 1 2012 at 9:21 am #

    The irony in this is that I sat down to work on my revisions. Obviously the fact that I’m here is a testament to how hard it is for me to resist the shiny internet. I think I’ll using all of these tips in the coming weeks. I was actually starting to think that I wasn’t going to get any work done until NaNoWriMo, because that’s the only time of the year when I actually exercise restraint! I need to just think of October as a NaNo warm-up.
    Thank you!

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:18 pm #

      Hey Leigh! Using October as a NaNo warm up is a great idea! Then December can be the cool down. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  6. Kateri Ransom Oct 1 2012 at 9:41 am #

    I too usually have a list of “checks” I have to sort through before I get that dang word doc open. I’ve been honing the skill of resistence a lot more efficiently now though, as I’ve seen the effects of such a thing are definately no bueno. But once I get going, as you said, I can barely stop. As in “mom just cooked my favoritest dinner meal ever and I still HAVE to finish this last paragraph” can’t stop.
    My best friend and I will both wake up rather early in the morning and skype each other! Not with the screen version, but with the im version. We typically check back in with each other every 30 minutes and even exchange excerpts every now and again. It’s not only discipline for us, but motivations as well, as each of our projects excites the other immensely!!! Thanks for the post!

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:21 pm #

      Kateri, I LOVE the Skype idea! The fact that you can check in with each other and even exchange excerpts would definitely add to the motivation. Thanks for sharing the idea!

  7. ellen levy-sarnoff Oct 1 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    One of the things that helped me was joining a 1000 words a day club. We all motivated each other, checked in at the end of the day, and often exceeded our moderate goal. Even if you don’t join a group or club, setting a reasonable word count goal can help you overcome procrastination.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:23 pm #

      Hi Ellen! Word count goals are a great idea – thanks for mentioning that! I’ve never heard of a 1000 words a day club, but it sounds like a great way to share encouragement. 🙂

  8. Alexa Loves Books Oct 1 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    These are such helpful suggestions to avoid getting distracted when writing. I know that it happens to me quite a lot, and I believe that using these tips will definitely help me out 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:26 pm #

      Hey Alexa! I’m so glad you like these tips! Read through the comments, too. Some readers have shared some really good ideas here. Thanks for commenting and good luck in the battle with distraction! 🙂

  9. JQ Trotter Oct 1 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    I love the “Power Hour”/”World War” idea. I like to think that the internet doesn’t really distract me and I don’t need to disconnect it when I’m writing but… of course it does, and I do. Music helps me focus, as long as there isn’t any lyrics. I can gauge how long I’ve been writing and how productive I’ve been on how many songs I’ve listened to and words have been written.

  10. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh Oct 1 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    JQ, your music idea is awesome! I use songs to motivate me when I’m working out (“I just have to keep going through two more songs…”) so I think that motivating effect might translate over to writing for me, too. But like you, I would need music without lyrics. 🙂

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