Writing does not usually flow steadily like a rolling stream; instead, for most of us, it alternates between occasional floods and frequent droughts.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a research paper, novel, blog post, or multiple freelance assignments, you will at times have trouble staying focused on the project.
To stay focused on writing, you first need to manage or eliminate distractions.
Then, you need to do one or both of the following: treat writing like a set task with a rigid schedule and demanding expectations; and/or give yourself space to find inspiration that can get and keep you writing.
Establish a workspace
With either a laptop or a pen and notebook, it seems like you should be able to just plop down anywhere and write.
However, to write consistently and effectively, you will probably want to set up a defined writing space that is specifically suited to your task.
Find a place that minimizes distractions and tells you that it’s “writing time” when you see it.
- Many people benefit from sitting and writing at a desk that is comfortable but not cozy; that is, a place that won’t cause you discomfort but also won’t easily let you drift into a nap. Set up a desk that has what you need where you need it, so you don’t have to get up while writing.
- Some people, however, do their best writing at the coffee shop or at a shaded picnic table in the park. This works best for people who can readily block out ambient noise and visual distractions. There is no single ideal writing spot for all of us; there is an ideal writing spot for you. You just need to find it.
Shut out the world
Especially if you are easily distracted while working, simply putting a closed door between your workspace and the outside world can make a major difference.
Not only does it block visual distractions and muffle distracting noises, it physically and psychologically isolates you within your writing space.
- If closing a door isn’t possible or practical, using noise-canceling headphones to block out ambient noise may be a good option for you.
Take a break from your phone
Thanks to modern smartphones, a world of limitless distractions accompanies us wherever we go.
The focus required for effective writing is not helped by the constant pings and rings, and the unending lure of making a quick check of emails, updates, and so on.
While it may pain you to do so, try to not only silence your phone, but to turn it off completely while you are writing
- You may even need to remove the phone from your sight while you work. Put it in a drawer that is nearby but that you’d have to get up from writing to reach. Don’t worry, it will still be there when you are finished
- If you have to keep your phone on, at least shut down as many apps and silence as many notifications as you can. And keep the phone out of easy reach so you aren’t as tempted to make a quick check every couple minutes.
Eliminate the Internet
Along with disconnecting or hiding your phone, you should also consider shutting off internet access on your computer (especially if you’re using it to write).
Yes, this will make it more difficult to look up a word definition or quickly research a topic, but it will also eliminate a world wide web of possible distractions.
- If you have something to check or look up while writing, jot down a note for later. Keep your focus strictly on writing and worry about corrections and fine details at another time
Remain seated and writing
Plan ahead so that when it’s time to sit down and write, you can do exactly (and only) that.
If you keep having to get up to grab this or do that, you’ll lose your concentration and writing momentum.
If you can get yourself into the writing “zone,” you want to stay there as long as you can
- That said, you’re not a machine and you can’t work non-stop. Eat a quick snack if you’re hungry, use the restroom as needed, and get up and stretch every hour or if you feel like you’re getting stiff. It’s hard to concentrate if you’re uncomfortable
- Try to plan out and coordinate these breaks so they don’t cause too many distractions.
Resume writing immediately after a distraction
Despite your best efforts to reduce them, you will face distractions such as a knock on the door or a crying toddler.
When you have to stop to deal with a distraction, it’s easy to say to yourself “Oh, that’s enough writing for today.”
Fight this urge, and get back to writing as soon as possible after dealing with the distraction
- Even if it’s 8:30, and you can only write until 9:00 before you have to get ready for work, sit back down and write. Stick to your schedule as best you can.
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Setting and Meeting Goals
Set your ideal schedule
Plan your writing time for your most productive part of the day. If you’re a morning person, set aside an hour or two before work or class.
If you’re a night owl, schedule your writing time for after everyone else in the house has gone to bed.
If you plan your writing time for when you’re distracted or tired, you’ll struggle even more to focus and get any good work done.
- Also, if you’re juggling multiple writing projects — if you’re a freelancer, for instance, or if you have multiple research papers due — schedule a time for each project separately. If you have two hours in the morning, schedule Project A for 7-8 am, and Project B from 8-9 am. Give each project a dedicated time of focus
Choose a time or task focus
For most people, setting a time-based schedule for writing is the best way to ensure ongoing productivity.
If you’re writing from 2-5 pm each day, for instance, you will become conditioned to perceiving this as “writing time” and your productivity and focus will likely increase.
- However, some people simply cannot write as effectively when they feel like they’re being controlled by a ticking clock. If you’re writing a novel and “write one good page per day” works better for you than “write from 1-3 pm each day,” that’s okay. Just make sure you hold yourself to that schedule just as rigidly. It will probably also help to write at roughly the same time each day
Find a “writing buddy.”
Sometimes, your writing focus can improve when you add a bit of competitive fire and/or some peer pressure to the mix.
If you know someone else writing a dissertation or three-act play, buddy up with them and coordinate your writing schedules.
Give each other regular updates and hold one another accountable for sticking to the schedule. You can even use small punishments/penalties and rewards if that helps.
- Your writing partner doesn’t have to be physically present; you could start your shared “writing time” with a text (then turn your phone off!) and end it with another. And, if it’s not possible to write at the same time, you can still keep track of each other’s daily writing results — and hold each other accountable if you come up short.
Hold yourself accountable
It’s a bit easier to be held accountable if you owe your “writing buddy” five dollars each time you don’t get in your two hours or finish that daily page.
However, you can set up a series of rewards and punishments for yourself to help keep your writing on track.
- For example, you can set aside Friday nights for going to a movie or hanging out with friends. However, take away one hour of your “fun time” for each hour of scheduled writing you skipped out on during the week.
- Or, if there’s a certain pair of shoes or video game that you really want, put a dollar in your “wish list piggy bank” each time you complete a scheduled writing session. In time, you’ll have earned your reward.
Share and celebrate your accomplishments
Writing is tough. It can be fun at times, but it’s also just plain hard work.
When you achieve a significant writing goal, like finishing a chapter or completing a new set of poems, don’t be shy about celebrating it.
You have accomplished something that many others couldn’t do — or wouldn’t have the persistence to do.
- Especially if you’re writing something lengthy like a novel or dissertation, define clear milestones along the way. Use them to record your larger progress and to serve as markers worthy of celebrating when achieved. Keep others informed of your progress and achievements, and have a little party or a night out to reward yourself.
- Sharing milestones (and when you ought to achieve them) with others also helps keep you on schedule and accountable.
Prepare before you write
If you’re writing a book of any sort, whether nonfiction or a novel, you’re probably going to want an outline or some sort of idea of the story line.
If you’re writing a report, gather your information before you write. Spending some time in preparation before you begin will save you time in the long run, and allow you to focus strictly on writing.
- That said, and especially if you are writing creatively, you want to make sure you can write freely and without particular concern for form, structure, grammar, spelling, etc. Do research beforehand to provide you with the content and context you need, and edit afterward to clean up and clarify what you’ve written. Allow your “writing time” to focus exclusively on precisely that
Try music for focus and inspiration
If you work better with music, pick something that goes with the mood of what you’re writing. Not only will this help you stay on task, it may also improve the quality of your writing.
- Use headphones (with noise-canceling if possible) to block out distractions and allow the music to support your focus. If you find the music to be a distraction, try changing genres or go without it. Use white noise sounds with the noise-canceling headphones instead
- Typically, classical or instrumental music is considered to be the best accompaniment for a writing session; however, we all respond differently to music. So, if you happen to write most effectively with heavy metal blaring, go for it!
Support your body and brain
Eating healthy, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep won’t automatically turn you into a prolific writer, but will certainly help with your concentration and stamina.
Properly fuel and rest your brain so that it can be inspired and translate this inspiration to the page.
- Create and follow a clear schedule, but make sure that it is a reasonable one. Don’t try to write for more than 3-4 hours at a time, or the returns will likely diminish rapidly. Schedule little breaks every hour or so to get up, get a drink, clear you head, stretch your back, etc. Then get right back to writing. Don’t let a mini break turn into an extended one.
Make time to think, feel, and experience
Inspiration is a very personal thing. You can’t manufacture it or force it, but you can nurture it.
Before starting a writing session, try to do something that sparks your creative juices, or that puts you in a reflective or introspective mood.
Go to the park. Walk in the woods. Sit at the cafe and watch the world go by. Meditate. Paint a picture. Find your inspiration.
- Doing a relaxing, inspirational activity before writing may also help to reduce the negative thoughts and feelings that can pop into your head when you’re struggling to write — things like “I can’t do this,” “This poem is terrible,” “I’m no writer,” and so on. Try to eliminate them before you begin writing, and power through them if they emerge while writing. You can and will overcome them by continuing to write
- If you really can’t concentrate, no matter what you do to focus, relax, and encourage yourself, take the day off. Even if you have to adjust your schedule to make up for it, you’re probably better off taking a break and getting yourself into a better frame of mind for writing
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