How I Combat Distractions While Writing (7 Steps)
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
Take a good, hard look at the photo above. Like, really take it all in. Other than the coffee mug placed precariously close to electronic devices, the person depicted conveys they have their act together, right? They're sitting with good posture at an immaculately clean workspace, seemingly typing fervently into a nice laptop. Well, sorry to break it to you, Sweetie (I'm so sorry, I don't know why I just called you "Sweetie." That was uncalled for.), but what you're looking at is a stock photo. In reality, I'm currently slumped into a lumpy sofa, balancing a decade old dusty laptop on my lap, and trying not to move too much so the second-hand charger doesn't stop working. In my periphery, my boyfriend is playing Day's Gone (a masterpiece of a video game in the zombie genre). And my Tuxedo cat is sitting in the kitchen window, meowing incessantly at squirrels or one of the stray cats that walks through our yard. But those potential distractions don’t hold a candle to my drug of choice... My phone. The thing I used to be so addicted to that I got physical withdrawals when I went without it for more than 10 minutes at a time. Like, I’d be literally shaking (Okay, I'm exaggerating a little here). Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. Every time I got a notification. Every time I got a "like" or a retweet or a comment or got sucked into an engaging r/relationships comment thread, I’d officially distracted from creating. For so long I thought that maybe I just couldn’t write anymore. Maybe my writer’s block was an incurable disease, embedded in my veins and gnawing at my neurons. Maybe I kept checking my phone because I was just a bad writer and needed an escape from the sad realization. At one point, I truly thought, maybe there was no hope for me. Luckily, I was wrong. I finally realized that I was addicted to social media and a victim of distraction and after some work, I was finally able to conquer both. Present day, no matter what’s going on in my day to day life, I don’t let it derail me from the task at hand. I'm able to write more efficiently and have fun doing it. My cat is now trying to sit on my shins. But I don’t blame him because I’m wearing my blue and white striped fuzzy socks. I mean, who can resist fuzzy socks? Not me. That’s for sure. But I promise… I’m still not distracted.
According to a 2018 Harvard University article by Trevor Haynes, many social media platforms “leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine” to keep up user engagement. Dopamine is a chemical produced in our brains to reward beneficial behaviors, including having successful social interactions. With smartphones, we now have an unlimited stream of social stimuli – and potential dopamine influx – at all times. Social media platforms even utilize research in reward prediction error encoding to keep us using their apps. “Unexpected rewards increase the activity of dopamine neurons, acting as positive feedback signals for the brain regions associated with the preceded behavior.” They use a variable reward schedule or pattern, holding back the reward after an unpredictable number of responses, motivating us to habitually check our phones. By creating a balance between positive and negative outcomes, pull-to-refresh and infinite scroll features - even algorithms sometimes holding back “likes” on photos to deliver them in larger bursts - programmers have created a dopamine delivery service that has created millions and millions of unsuspecting addicts.
Why am getting all technical with this? Well, because I really want to emphasize how hard it is to create in this day and age. Before you dismiss me as another whiny millennial, market-research group Nielsen discovered that “American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media.” And a RescueTime study found that people spend an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones alone. I mean, considering all of these distractions, how does anyone get anything done?? Last year, while trying to map out a romance novel idea I had in my head, I realized just how easily distracted I was. After reading many articles and blogs and watching a lot of Youtube videos (I know, I know, watching Youtube to figure out how to stop being distracted is kind of a fighting fire with fire kind of deal), I then implemented some of the things I learned into my life. And you know what? I actually started to have more productive writing sessions, had less spouts of anxiety, and had better quality sleep. Then I realized that I wasn’t suffering every single day from writer’s block. I was suffering from cobweb-brain due to this addiction that I didn’t realize I had for so long. After changing my habits and adjusting my lifestyle, I was finally able to finish my romance novel. If you’re a fellow writer or artist of any kind, I hope you can benefit from the things I learned too… because in my metaphorical opinion, if people become too distracted to share their art… the world will probably stop spinning. Just sayin’.
Some things I learned and a few steps I took to overcome distractions and social media addiction:
1. Turn off most notifications on all of your devices. Even when my phone was on silent, I found myself periodically checking the screen to see if I got a notification from one of my many apps. This was a major distraction so I had to squash it. Yes, I usually keep my alarm sound and my text and call alerts on so that I didn’t miss something important, but that’s about it. I even turn my email alerts off (unless I have something really important coming in) because if something is really dire and imperative, people will probably call or text instead of email.
2. Set a few daily goals. Personally, I stick with two things I want to get done every day. I put those less important tasks on a separate list and only think about them when I’m done with my two main objectives. Two is not an overwhelming number for me. I decide on what I’m going to do the night before or the morning of. When I’m done, I feel satisfied and accomplished.
3. Set time limits. This really helped me focus on my work. Instead of saying “I have to get this done today,” I set aside an hour or two – with my phone’s timer – and specifically write until the chime tells me to stop. Knowing I only have so many minutes helps me hone in on what needs to be done and keeps my mind from wondering into daydream land or getting trapped in one of those clickbait article rabbit holes. A lot of the time I’m so in the zone – experiencing one of those writer highs where everything melts away and the only thing that exists are the words appearing on my screen - that I'll keep writing well past the allotted time.
4. Eliminate other distractions from your workspace. When I really need to focus on something very important to me (like writing a novel), I lock myself in my office. I put relaxing music on to drown out any sounds that are going on outside of the room. I turn off my internet access. If you still find it hard to resist the magnetic pull of the World Wide Web, there are things like StayFocused – a Google Chrome productivity extension that blocks and restricts one from time wasting websites. Joe Rogan has mentioned many times on his podcast that he uses Darkroom (“a full screen, distraction free, writing environment”) to write his standup comedy. I’ve tried it many times and love the way it makes me feel like I’m writing inside the Matrix. Click here for 7 Distraction-Free Writing Environments for authors.
5. Start with the deeper thinking work earlier in the day and be mindful. “[Be] aware of your internal mental process and catch the wrong impulses before they take hold.” According to a Psychology Today article on Distraction, the medial prefrontal cortex revs up when it’s not doing much. Losing external focus activates what’s also called the “default network” region of your brain, guiding your attention to more internal factors. The way to combat this phenomenon and stay focused on the good things instead of the wrong things, is to start with harder, tougher, deeper thinking work earlier in the day. When you’re done with that work, you can then focus on the easier and interesting tasks that can be done even when your brain is tired or overwhelmed - like checking emails or replying to Instagram DMs. If you still find your mind wandering, make an effort to acknowledge that your mind is wondering and go back to the work. Mindful observation might not seem like much, but will at least try to steer you back in the right direction.
6. Music. I listen to a lot of ambient soundtracks and music that doesn’t have a lot of words in it. Spotify and other music services have a ton of instrumental only playlists. If I’m in the mood to hear lyrics, I don’t play music that is too upbeat and I don’t put the music too loud – simulating a kind of coffee shop vibe. If music of any kind is distracting to you, you can use noise-cancelling headphones or pick up some cheap ear plugs from your local drug store.
7. Exercise. Lastly, I’ve found that exercising regularly – at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week – helps clear my mind and focus when I need to. It also helps to reduce stress, which keeps my mind from worrying or having intrusive thoughts. According to Harvard Health Publishing, exercise reduces stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. “It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.” If I’m just not in a good mood and feeling anxious, I’ve found that even going for a short twenty minute walk outside helps to clear my mind and just make me feel better overall. I’m then able to go back to my work with a newfound vigor and without those annoying distractions that come with feeling icky.
So there it is. I apologize in advance if anything in this blog post was explained poorly or was just purely nonsensical. My list was compiled from research that I then applied to my life, but for all I know, I interpreted everything wrong and have no idea what I’m talking about. Even so, it worked for me and I hope it can help someone else out there. Thanks for reading my ramblings and please come back periodically to read my new posts. You might even want to subscribe to my mailing list to get blog updates. It’s completely up to you. No pressure. Lastly, if you have found any tactic that helps you stay distraction free and away from your devices, please comment below. I’d love to learn from you!