How to focus when writing

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If you’re someone who’s easily distracted, learning how to focus when writing will give you a big payoff in productivity…

Do you ever sit at your computer and find the prospect of writing to be defeating you? You know you need to work on your paper (or report or blog post or book manuscript) and you just can’t seem to focus.

You take a few deep breaths, stretch your arms out over your head and still….nothing. Your mind is caught up in your fight with your partner this morning. Or your garden-improvement project. Or your shopping list for dinner that night. You can’t focus. In all honesty, you’d rather be cleaning your oven or having a root canal right now. 

Learning to achieve better focuswhen you want and need it — is an important skill for all writers. 

Here are 13 mostly easy steps you can take to improve your focus:

    1. Limit your time: After 40 years of working with thousands of writers, I can tell you that the vast majority of people who have difficulty writing try to spend way too much time at it. If you’re having writing problems your first strategy should be to reduce your time, not increase it. A few years ago, when I was having difficulty with a portion of the writing for my most recent book, Your Happy First Draft, I cut my writing commitment in half, from 500 words per day to 250. That step solved my writing problem, immediately. And here was the best part: On most days, I hit 500 words, anyway, even though that was no longer my goal.
    2. Plan ahead: Ben Franklin said “working without a plan is planning to fail” and he was absolutely correct. When you’re writing on Monday, plan ahead for what you want to write on Tuesday. The act of doing this very minor preparation will more than double your chances of having a successful and focused experience the next writing day.
    3. Increase your writing time gradually: Closely tied with tip #1, above, this recommendation suggests you start small and build gradually. Writing is very much like exercise; you need conditioning to be able to do it well. Just as you don’t run a marathon tomorrow (unless you’ve trained for it), don’t start with a one-hour writing session — that’s way too much time. Start with no more than 15 or 30 minutes of writing and maintain that level for a couple of weeks before you try to increase your time.
    4. Remove distractions: If you want to eat more healthily you don’t keep cookies or potato chips in your house or apartment. Similarly, when you write, keep distractions at bay. Turn off your cellphone (or put it in a different room). Put a note on your door saying “do not disturb.”  Shut down your Internet so you aren’t tempted to surf the web. And if you have any difficulty with that last step, invest in some software that will force you to stay focused. Focus Booster and Freedom are two good options. 
    5. Get more physical exercise: I’m not veering off topic, here. Physical exercise is important for everyone and it will help you become a better, more focused writer, too. You don’t have to go to a gym if you don’t like gyms (or if you can’t during the pandemic). And, in fact, you don’t have to pursue any activity you don’t really enjoy. If you’ve never built an exercise habit for yourself before now, try scheduling a brisk 20-minute walk for yourself at least once a day so you get out of your office and your brain has plenty of time to wander. The combination of physical activity plus thinking will dramatically improve your focus when you’re writing.
    6. Don’t multi-task: Many of us feel powerful and accomplished when we multi-task. Too bad we’re fooling ourselves. We accomplish less when we multi-task and we feel more stressed when doing it. Train yourself to do only one thing at a time. You will likely be surprised by your increased productivity.
    7. Create a distraction to-do list: Did you know that once you get distracted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to your original task? Instead of responding to these distractions immediately, develop a system for dealing with them. I keep a clipboard by my right-hand side and whenever my brain starts to wander to something else I need to do, I jot down a quick note which I can save (and categorize) later in the day. 
    8. Mindmap: This simple technique — easy to learn; easy to do — is a way to help yourself schedule inspiration and keep your mind focused on your writing project. Check out the special section on my website containing all the blog posts and videos I’ve done on mindmapping.
    9. Use sound strategically. Research by Nilli Lavie at University College London has found that deliberate distractions – such as background noise – will reduce the distractibility many of us feel when writing. I know that when I started using a noisy timer for my pomodoros, I found myself able to write in a much more focused fashion. Basically, noise helps fill the attentional “slots” in our mind, leaving less room for other distractions. This is why so many writers prefer to work with coffee shop noise in the background.  
    10. Reward yourself:  Larger rewards — associated with completion of a large-ish project — seem to work best. And use a colleague or a co-worker to help ensure that you (a) don’t reward yourself too early and (b) actually take the reward. I’ve found a shockingly large number of people do the work and then forget to take their rewards.
    11. Daydream during breaks: Stopping during your writing and giving your mind a scheduled break for daydreaming can help many people according to psychologist Paul Seli of Harvard University. In fact, daydreaming is a useful part of the writing process. Just don’t do it WHILE you are writing.
    12. Minimize your stress: While stress is often helpful rather than harmful, it also stimulates the release of hormones, including noradrenaline, which bind to receptors in the cognitive control circuits. This reality makes it harder to stop a wandering mind. If you are stressed about a writing deadline, do some breathing exercises before starting to work so that your stress is at least temporarily reduced. Also consider developing a meditation habit — something you can begin with as few as five minutes per day.
    13. Doodle: Doodling is a pleasurable activity that improves our memory and our focus. The next time you find your mind wandering, see if you can get yourself back on track with some strategic doodling. 

Being able to write when you want is not about inspiration or magic. It’s about developing a series of simple habits that help support you in achieving your goal.


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed how teachers can become ‘real’ writers. Or, see the transcriptand consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Have you learned how to focus when writing? How do you do it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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