man in white business shirt writing on paper at a desk.

3 Steps to Keep Distractions From Ruining Writing Time with Tips You Can Apply Now

You’ve heard the statistics, I’m sure. The exact numbers don’t really matter-what does matter are the facts: most writers never finish their manuscripts.

Why? There are a myriad of barriers: self-doubt, lack of time, poor planning, life events. One big culprit of never typing THE END on that manuscript involves all of life’s distractions. While we can’t prevent all interruptions, we certainly can control many, giving ourselves a fighting chance at finishing our stories.

You may be nodding, knowing all too well how distractions take over your writing time.

But…maybe you don’t.

Sure, you may be aware of obvious culprits, like Wordle or that annoying notification ding that keeps pulling you toward your phone. But many are subtle. Some you’ve become so accustomed to, that you no longer notice them-or make excuses for them.

What can you do?

Empower yourself to take control of those distractions with 3 main goals:

  1. Arm yourself with understanding how distractions not only hurt your writing, but how they can harm your health and impact your overall life experience.
  2. Spend some time identifying your personal distractions.
  3. Tame those disruptors enough to help you get that manuscript ready to pitch.
What are distractions? Woman with long brown hair and blue blouse looking thoughtful with a large question mark

Wouldn’t you love that?

What are distractions, really?

Sounds too obvious to discuss. But is it? Nir Eyal, lecturer at Stanford and author of Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life, defines distractions as: “the process of interrupting attention” and “a stimulus or task that draws attention away from the task of primary interest.” That sounds straight forward.

But he also goes on to say that, uncontrolled, distractions can become habitual, keeping us from creativity, not just in our writing, but our professional and personal lives. More importantly, they keep us from fully engaging with friends and family, allowing us to miss out on important parts of our own lives. This article has some basic examples of distractions that you will probably recognize from your own life.

How it starts…

Blue sky with clouds and a man standing in front with a black zip up jacket and his hand over his eyes in frustration

I saw the impact of distractions in my professional career. As an ICU pharmacist, my office door remained open for any questions, my cell phone always on alert for calls to a bedside. As I worked on projects, I could be stopped any number of times during the day: an urgent call for a drug calculation, a pop-up notification of an email flagged with high-importance, a text asking me to consult.

Those projects? They would find their way home for me to work on in the evening. And sometimes, I found myself dividing my attention between the childrens’ needs, the projects, and cooking dinner. With all this, there was rarely any time to take care of my own health (or write).

How they become deep-seated habits:

Overtime, the way I dealt with all these interruptions developed into a lifestyle. By the time I retired, I found myself unable to pull away from the constant expectation of texts being urgent, the notifications (now generally book marketing or family messages) on my phone needing immediate attention. Plus, while sitting in front of that computer at home, editing The Grim Reader– I could see distractions: the laundry, the dishes, etc. I kidded myself about being able to multi-task it all, and just found myself busier and busier.

Does any of this sound familiar?

red pen laying on a typed page with editing notes in red ink

Identifying Distractions

Becoming aware of all the distractions around you is the first step to successfully taking back control of your writing time (and your life). There are two main types of distractions:

  • Internal
  • External

Internal distractions- calming the storm

All those swirling worries and thoughts inside of your head not only keep you from writing, but from enjoying your day, engaging with friends, or even sleeping well at night. While you can’t make all your worries go away, you can do some things to keep them from mentally interrupting you during crucial times. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Learning Center lists several ideas in-depth. To get you started, here are a few:

  • Deep breathing exercises
    • While this may sound simple, take a few moments to relax with several deep, slow breaths. Notice how much calmer you feel? Humans breathe faster in response to stress. Over time, regular stress (like muti-tasking and overcommitted lifestyles), leads to chronic patterns of rapid breathing, which can lead to:
      • High blood pressure,
      • Cardiac disease, and
      • Metabolic disorders.
    • Reducing your breathing rate can disrupt the brain’s response to stress. Over time, this can lead to reduced blood pressure and other health benefits, as described in this article from the American Physiological Society.
  • Identify a better time of day to write
    • If distractions tend to be heavier in the morning, moving your writing session to another time of day may help improve your chances of focusing.
  • Physically move
    • When your mind begins to drift, stand up and move to another room or sit with a different view of your writing area. This may be enough to gain control of those wandering thoughts and get your mind back on track.
  • Exercise
    • Get your blood flowing and heart rate up for a short time. This can make you feel better overall and give you more energy to focus amidst distractions.

Writing-Specific Internal Distractions

Does fear of failure as a writer keep you from focusing on your writing? This might help get you back on track. Writer’s burnout is another problem that inhibits creativity. This resource offers some tools to deal with burnout.

A black fuel tank gauge with the red needle pointing to E

Finally, consider that your own emotional fuel tank may be empty. Daily stresses, lack of sleep, pushing ourselves…can land us with an empty emotional fuel tank, with nothing left for our creative minds (and no energy to ward off those distractions). Check out 7 Steps to Healthy Emotional Endurance for Writers for tips to refuel your tank.

External Distractions

You can probably list a lot of external distractions: constant phone notifications, messages, family/friends/neighbors, texts, piles of laundry…and just one more game of Wordle. Responding to some external distractions, especially social media “likes” and online games, can actually release the chemical dopamine in your brain. This “happy chemical” makes you feel… well…happier. It’s also addicting, causing your brain to want more…so you reach for that phone to get a few more “likes”, start another session of scrolling through funny videos, play one more game…

Dopamine can be very helpful. For example, you can learn to use dopamine to improve motivation. Click here for a downloadable short workbook to provide you with the power to harness your dopamine-laden brain.

Avoiding Those Pesky External Interruptions:

Dopamine can also be destructive. That spiral of exhaustion and the good feeling from dopamine can redirect your behavior. Pretty soon, you may be scrolling and clicking to release more of that dopamine….without realizing it. By making your surroundings less unpleasant, you can reduce your need to chase the escapism of dopamine, ultimately improving focus. Finish reading this article for more ideas on taming external distractions. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Noise reduction
    • Everything from a dog barking to car horns honking can take your mind away from writing. Sometimes all you need to do is put on a headset with pleasant background sounds to mask audible distractions. (Hint: do NOT play music you know the words to…or you may find yourself singing along, instead of hitting that word count). There are many background sound tracks to consider, from pink noise to waterfalls. Pleasing music can also release dopamine, making your writing time more pleasant.
  • Move locations
    • I can’t write where I can actually see the laundry. I WILL get up, eventually, and do that laundry…finding myself an hour later with folded laundry and probably clean dishes, too. And the dusting…there’s always that. I have to go to a local park (when it isn’t 110 degrees in Phoenix), a coffee shop, or other place to get any real writing done. What venue might be near you that could work?
  • Move again…
    • I love my local coffee shop. I do. Great coffee. Great music. But I get to know the people, and then I have…distractions. I find myself in quick chats with others, instead of writing. To avoid this, I rotate places—somedays a different coffee shop, or the library, or the park. Sometimes, I write in my car in a parking lot. It’s quiet (and I don’t have to spend money on an expensive coffee).
  • Social media timeouts
    • Activate your phone’s social media timeout function. This feature can be set to notify when you’ve reached your maximum time on social media for the day. It can even dither out the app.
  • Silence the phone
    • SIlence your phone’s ringer. Better yet turn it off. If, like me, you want to be sure family can contact you in an emergency, set the phone to only allow those specific calls or texts reach you during writing time.
  • Timed blocks
    • Balancing obligations that are visual distractors can be as easy as setting an alarm for dedicated blocks of time. I use 20-30 minutes, but you can choose what works for you. Every 30 minutes, my alarm goes off, I look at my list, and do ONE task that is visually distracting me. Maybe start the laundry, or wash the dishes. When the alarm goes off again, I return to my writing. This is my version of something called the Pomodoro Method.
A woman sitting atop a rock at the top of a mountain overlooking other mountain vistas with a bright white obscuring part of the horizon.

You’re not (home) alone!

Think you’re the only writer that has to deal with distractions that keep you from finishing your manuscript? Definitely not. See what other writers are sharing about their distraction frustrations and solutions at this month’s blog hop (below) from The Insecure Writers Support Group.

What about you?

How do you deal with distractions that keep you from writing THE END? Leave a comment below or share in the blog hop chats.

Insecure Writer's Support Group Logo

Thanks to this month’s blog hop hosts: Victoria Marie Lees, Kim Lajevardi, Nancy Gideon, and Cathrina Constantine! Check out their posts and others from the list below. While you’re there, consider joining the blog hop community. See here for more information.

9 Comments

  1. This is an excellent post, Miffie, with many good suggestions! Happy IWSG Day!

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