A friend asked me if I had any tips on staying focused, because she’s really easily distracted. I understand that feeling very well, so I know that sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about it — but I also know there are several ways you can help yourself.
1. Pick your moment
The most obvious advice is to pick a time to write when you’re least likely to be distracted. For my first real NANOWRIMO in 2011, I wrote at night. I’m a bit of a night owl, anyway, but with carers coming in four times a day and family visiting without warning, daytime writing means you could be interrupted at any moment, mid-sentence or mid-thought, and you could risk losing whatever genius creation you’re working on at the very moment the doorbell rings.
Since I adopted KitKat, I’m having to stick to a much stricter routine. She gets very upset if I don’t go to bed when I’m supposed to, or if she doesn’t get her Dreamies at bang on 9am, or so on and so forth. That means no more all-nighters. It also means that I don’t stand a chance of doing anything productive before noon, because she spends the morning restlessly patrolling the house and walking back and forth over my keyboard. That’s not a great time to sit down and try to write.
You might not have a cat. For you, it might be a dog or kids or that you can’t write if you know you’re headed to work in half an hour. Maybe you know you won’t get any writing done if you wait until evening, when the hubby has the TV on full blast and your teenagers are pelting whatever passes for music these days. Maybe it’s your health that means you can’t focus first thing in a morning, or maybe you just need a gallon of coffee first.
Figure out the best and worst times for you.
Sometimes, you can’t help but work around a really crappy schedule and write when you have to, regardless of how well you can concentrate. Even so, knowing yourself and your habits can help you find the best times to write. It can also help you set realistic goals so you’re not trying to write 8000 words when you have the attention span of a goldfish.
2. Create a distraction-free zone
Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. TV. Playing with your cat. Reading my blog.
These are all time saps. (Well, maybe that last one is just wishful thinking.) You pop on first thing on a Monday morning “just to check in”, and the next thing you know it’s Friday afternoon and you’ve got nothing done.
Thankfully, you’re not the only one with this problem. So many of us have it, in fact, that a bunch of people got together and came up with a bunch of apps to boot you off distracting websites and onto what you’re really supposed to be doing.
Some writing software also offer distraction-free writing zones, such as Liquid Story Binder’s typewriter mode or the browser-based Write or Die. The latter scares the baloney out of me, but I can’t praise LSB’s typewriter enough. It’s largely responsible for getting me through NANOWRIMO!
3. Give yourself a break
Have you ever heard of the Pomodoro technique? It’s a style of working that gives you 25 minutes “on” and 5 minutes “off”, then you take a 10-15 minute break after 4 full Pomodoro sessions.
25 minutes of work may not seem like enough to you — or maybe you need a much bigger break between sessions like me — but the technique itself is pretty sound. I try to use an adapted version of this technique, not just to help me focus on the task at hand, but also to help with Pacing my ME. Having regular breaks makes a huge difference.
4. Challenge your buddies
Veterans of NANOWRIMO will already know about word wars. For the unchallenged among you, word wars are exactly what they sound like: pick a partner (or a group) and set a time limit. Whoever finishes with the most words “wins” and gets a cookie. (The cookie might be a lie.)
According to the NANOWRIMO forums, “[t]he most popular [word wars] tend to be the 10 … and 15 Minute”, but you can set whatever time limit you and your buddies are comfortable with. My friend and I once spent roughly an hour in five-minute sessions, and we both found our word count going up as we went on. Knowing that someone was on the other side of the computer screen, writing and expecting me to do the same, was a tremendous help in staying focused. We kept the time limit short because we both needed the motivation of stopping frequently to check in.
Word wars can be a problem if they bring out the self-destructive monster in you. They can be highly competitive, so it’s important to find a buddy who writes at roughly the same pace as you. Otherwise, you’ll wind up killing whatever muse you’re running on because “wah they wrote 1000 words more than me and I can’t keep up and I suck”.
Word wars are immensely fun, especially if you know your partner and can cat-call or egg them on via instant messenger.
5. Challenge yourself
There are also word sprints. These are supposedly not competitive and are “to see how much you can write in a specified amount of time, or see how long it takes you to write a specific amount of words”. You can challenge someone to a word sprint if you’re so inclined (though “how long will it take you to write 500 words” doesn’t seem as fast-paced or exciting as a word war does to me), but the point with these is to challenge and motivate yourself.
Knowing you’re on the clock can be all the incentive you need to stay away from social media and get the words on the page. So: get a kitchen timer or set one up on your computer and sit down to write.
Hot Tip: Start small! If you’re easily distracted, set your timer for five minutes. Write until the timer goes off, then give yourself a break. Allow yourself to hop on to social media or ogle pictures of pretty planners — but set a timer for that, too.
Because my ME fluctuates in severity, I might need a fifteen minute break for every five minutes’ of writing, or I might be able to even it out at five-for-five depending on just how bad my mental symptoms are.
Figure out what works best for you. If you’re finding yourself hopping around in your seat wishing you could stop writing, or your timer goes off and you realise you’ve spent the last two minutes day-dreaming, shorten your writing limit and try again.
After a while, the timer will become a new, ingrained habit. You’ll train your brain to associate “timer time” as “writing time”, so you’ll stop fidgeting so much. Eventually, you’ll be able to increase the time limit, so you’re “on” more than you’re “off”.
How do you focus?
How do you avoid distractions when you’re trying to focus, either on writing or anything else that needs to get done?
Do you have a routine? A special place to write? Software and tools that help keep you on task?
Or do you sit down to write and just hope for the best?