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How to focus on writing: 5 tips that work

Out of focus“The thing all writers do best is find ways to avoid writing.” —Alan Dean Foster

If you’re like most writers, staying focused isn’t your strong point.

You start the novel, and you lose momentum. You want to get back to it, but you don’t.

You hit a rough patch with your blog, and you get discouraged. You can’t think of new topics for posts, and the blog hits the dust.

You get sick, your kids get sick, or your dog gets sick. You’re planning a wedding, going on vacation, or buying a house, and you don’t know how to get back into the swing of things.

Sometimes you just have so many other interests or hobbies you can’t choose.

Creative people are often multipotentialites—polymaths or Renaissance men and women—who get pulled in all sorts of directions.

So much to see and do! The whole world sparkles, and you’re talented in so many areas. But if you want to write—and write well—you have to focus.

These five tips are in my toolbox, and they work. If you have trouble keeping your writing in focus, see if they work for you.

1. Stick to a daily schedule.

Create a schedule tailored to your needs. Start writing at dawn every day and write for three hours. Write for two hours every afternoon. Write for an hour before bed every night. Write on your lunch break at work. Write while the baby is sleeping. Schedule five hours every Saturday and two hours on Sunday.

It doesn’t matter when you write or what kind of schedule you keep. What matters is that you write regularly and stick with it.

Avoid scheduling by project unless you’re experienced enough to know exactly how long it will take.

If you plan to “write and publish a blog post every Monday” or “complete the novel by January 2015” you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

That’s because any type of writing can require more time than you expect. You might have interruptions, get sick, or experience technical difficulties. You risk overwhelm, staying up all night, or saying to hell with it. But if you plan to write (as well as research, edit, proofread, and other related tasks) during certain chunks of time on a regular basis, you’re much more likely to succeed in the long run.

2. Return to your schedule when you’ve had time away.

Sometimes it’s next to impossible to stick to your schedule. Life happens, or something has to get done.

During the last few weeks, I moved from the Philadelphia area to Florida. I had a lot to accomplish between selling my house and its contents plus whittling down personal possessions until I could fit almost everything in my car and a rooftop cargo carrier. I lost a lot of writing time.

Then I had to find and get settled in a new apartment. It took a lot longer than I thought it would (what doesn’t?). I had to unpack and organize plus buy stuff like a folding table and chair and even cleaning supplies and groceries. On top of that, one of my perfectly healthy dogs collapsed and was hospitalized just a few days ago.

What can you do? Don’t worry about it. Just get back on track as soon as you can. Stick to your usual schedule or revise it if needed.

You might not feel like getting back to your writing, or you might think something trivial is more important. The more you procrastinate, though, the harder it gets. Just jump back on the track and start writing.

3. Recognize feelings and thoughts for what they are: feelings and thoughts.

You might not feel inspired. You might think you don’t feel creative. The thought of writing might feel overwhelming. You might feel dread, fear, or worry. You might think it won’t be any good or you think you’ll never finish it. You feel tired, or you think you’re too distracted.

But guess what? You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. Thoughts flit through your mind all the time, but many of them are simply habitual thoughts. And your feelings arise from your thoughts and conditioned responses.

You think I’ll never get this done. It won’t be any good. I can’t think of anything to write. And then your body responds to the thoughts by freezing up in anxiety or worry.

Let the thoughts come and go. Be aware of them, but don’t pay them any mind. Recognize the reactions in your body—your emotions—but don’t let them stop you as you make your way to your writing area.

Choose your actions. If you choose to write, then write.

Sit down with those thoughts and feelings and start writing, even if it’s only for 10 or 20 minutes. (Try this timer.) As you get in the groove, negative thoughts and feelings will pass. If you don’t get in the groove right away, keep trying. You will.

Distracted by noisy neighbors or kids playing and feeling annoyed? Try Simply Noise. It not only blocks out noise, it can also help you relax (even when the noise is just your own busy thoughts).

4. Face it: you can’t do everything you feel like doing.

Instead of sitting down to write, most of us would rather hit the beach, go skiing, be on vacation, hang out with friends, or do anything that’s simply enjoyable and easy. Facebook, Twitter, and texting are big distractions for many.

My main distractions have always had to do with hobbies and home. I enjoy gardening, remodeling and decorating, cooking nice meals, having friends over, and sports or travel. Plus I’ve had the unavoidable tasks like mowing the grass, shoveling snow, or fixing something.

I decided to pare down my life to essentials, which is why I sold my house and its contents and moved. Wow! Now, with just a small apartment, I can focus on what matters most: my writing and my business. And I’ll still have time for healthy pursuits like eating well, getting exercise, and spending time with friends.

You can’t do everything. Are you going to write or not? Are you going to finish that novel? Be selective. Figure out what you can live without, and schedule writing time in its place.

5. Practice.

Learning to stay focused on your writing isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a skill, and any skill requires learning and practice.

You might create a schedule and not be able to stick with it. That’s okay; make a new one that works. Experiment.

You might feel discouraged if you haven’t written for weeks, months, or even years. How do you even begin again? Just do it. Force yourself to sit down and write even for just 10 minutes. It helps if it’s something you care about because the emotions will create energy. But anything will do.

I broke out of a long spell of not writing back in 2006 by starting a blog about my dog and his battle with cancer. It worked. The words just flowed, and it got me back on track.

And right now I’m breaking out of a few weeks of hardly writing with—what else? A post about the tools I’ve developed to do just that.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just stay focused or turn it on and off when we want to?

It doesn’t work that way for most of us. But sticking to a schedule is half the battle. Getting back on schedule when we’ve got off and ignoring negative thoughts and feelings is another battle won. Admitting we can’t do everything and choosing our priorities is important for plenty of writers.

And practice!

What tricks do you have for staying focused on your writing? I’d love to read them in the comments (and so would other readers), so please share.

Photo credit: Feelart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

8 comments… add one

  • This article is practical, well-written article, and just the right length. Ms. McClellan cleverly held my interest by using the story of her move to Florida to illustrate her points about staying focused on writing. Her technique conferred credibility and created common ground, as I have considered relocating to focus on my writing. In fact, her narrative was so compelling, that found myself wondering how she likes her new life.

    Reply
    • Hi Geoff,

      Thanks for stopping by and your kind words. I appreciate your explanation of what worked for you in particular. Great! And I’m liking it a lot down here in Florida :) Good luck with your own plans.

      Leah

      Reply
  • The Pomordoro Technique that I discovered last year has been a lifesaver. Enjoyed your article, Leah, thanks! -er

    Reply
    • Thanks Eric! The Pomodoro Technique is great in a lot of ways. One thing I have to guard against, though, is getting distracted on a break, so I tend to keep them short and mainly for stretching or eating. Glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  • I finally have gotten to a point where I can concentrate on writing. At 70, my mind is still functioning, but I learned that I need reminders… and I need to practice, practice and practice some more!
    Barbara recently posted…Tai Chi for ArthritisMy Profile

    Reply
    • Glad to hear you’ve found the place where you can finally concentrate on your writing–I think that’s a challenge for many of us. Practice is what it’s all about–you go, girl! :)

      Reply
  • Thank you for the tips. There are times I am guilty on writing habitually. If I am not in the mood to write, I am not really writing anything.

    Reply
    • Hi Angelica,

      You’re very welcome! I know what you mean. I get out of the habit too sometimes, usually when something unusual and difficult comes up in my life. It’s hard to stay on track sometimes. But all we have to do is start over again and figure we needed a break! The more we “practice” the habit, the better we get at it.

      Reply

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