Knuckling down and writing is hard.
I will now claim my prize for biggest understatement of the decade, please.
Nonetheless, I’m willing to bet a fair bit of cash that a lot of people reading this blog could probably relate to the statement. Writing takes a lot of drive, focus and energy to get done, and even more on top of that if you want it done well: mustering such abilities on top of everyday life and the curveballs it can throw at you can sometimes seem like an insurmountable challenge. I know it does for me at points: I’ve lost track of the number of projects, games, RPs and stories that I’ve abandoned purely because of my inability to get my shit together and get things done.
This is something that I’ve been trying hard to work on and improve over the last year or so, both in terms of my writing and how I function as a human being. Through this process I’ve come across a number of tips and tricks that have greatly aided my ability to focus on the things that matter (writing, in this case) and to actually produce content on a more consistent and reliable level. Waiting for the muse to strike is all well and good, but if you’ve been writing for any length of time you’ll be fully aware of the fact that muses are fickle things who are more than happy to up and leave you at the most awkward of times. If you want to get your shit together and get shit done, you need something more.
That’s what I’m hoping to offer in this article.
What follows below are a series of suggestions and ideas that I’ve found extremely helpful when it comes to getting my ass in gear and writing.
WRITING SUGGESTION #01: REMOVE DISTRACTIONS
You have a limited attention span.
That’s not an insult: that’s a fact. Study after study demonstrates that our ability to concentrate and focus on important matters is finite, and once it’s squandered it can be difficult to regain. Furthermore, research shows that interruptions during periods of intense concentration are even more draining and off-putting than you might realise. Think of it this way. Ever been playing a video game, one that requires attention and focus, only you’ve had to pause it suddenly in the middle of the action? Upon returning to it, you’ll most likely have found that your flow was completely thrown off, and it took a while to get back (assuming you didn’t fail horribly before then).
As it is with the video game analogy, so it is with your brain when you’re trying to concentrate on writing. Every distraction, even the minor ones, pulls you out of your flow and hinders your ability to get back into it, be it your phone, IMs, interruptions from friends and/or family. It all takes a toll on your ability to get your writing done.
The solution, then, is to prune some of those distractions where you can.
Here’s some suggestions for things you might want to prune:
- Social Media: If there is one thing that fucks your ability to focus on a task to death, its your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/pick-your-poison habit. These ostensibly free services have been engineered to acquire and hold your attention for as long as possible, to maximise the amount of ad revenue they rake in. As long as its in easy reach, the temptation to take “just a quick break” to see what your mates are saying will always be there.
I’m not saying delete your account or anything so dramatic. What I’m saying is find ways to reduce the temptation to check your social media all the damn time. Got Facebook on your phone? Delete it. Remove Twitter from your starred sites. Minimise your ability to thoughtlessly slip out of the task you’re focused on and into some mind-numbing, focus-crushing social media browsing.
- Video Games: Not gonna lie, I love me some video games. Probably a little too much, truth be told (Kojima is my husbando you can’t have him fuck off casual). But even I have to acknowledge just how much of a time-sponge they can be if you let them. The temptation for “just one match of DOTA/just one run in Enter The Gungeon/just an hour in Civ” is often all too easy to give in to.
What you have to ask yourself is this: what’s more important? The easy thrill of playing some vidya, or the satisfaction of knuckling down and getting something written? What do you think would give you a more lasting feeling of accomplishment, and help you develop a skill you’re hoping to hone? Again, I’m not advocating that you cut video games out your life (fuck that noise), but instead I’m suggesting regulating how often you play them. Use them as a reward to pat yourself on the back after you’ve got your word count done, or as an activity to unwind when you need it. We’ll cover some techniques for structuring and regulating your time later, but for now just be aware of this.
- TV/Films: I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘idiot box’ when it comes to TV, since you can learn a hell of a lot from them if you do it right. All the same, I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say they can be a massive time-sponge if you let them. With the advent of modern streaming services (many of which come built into modern smart TVs), it’s never been easier to just sit back and binge on a show for an entire evening. This is another powerful distraction in your life that you want to take steps to mitigate. Regulating the time you spend gazing into the glorious void of TV will allow you to spend more time achieving things you want or need to. Like, say, getting that post written, or that chapter finished up.
WRITING SUGGESTION #02: EMBRACE BOREDOM
In a recent interview he gave that turned to the topic of productivity and writing, Neil Gaiman had this to say about boredom:
“I think it’s about where ideas come from, they come from day dreaming, from drifting, that moment when you’re just sitting there…
“The trouble with these days is that it’s really hard to get bored. I have 2.4 million people on Twitter who will entertain me at any moment…it’s really hard to get bored…
“I’m much better at putting my phone away, going for boring walks, actually trying to find the space to get bored in. That’s what I’ve started saying to people who say ‘I want to be a writer,” I say ‘great, get bored.’”
In this day and age, distractions and means to keep your attention occupied are almost constantly available. Long commute? Fire up your laptop. Stuck in a queue? Your smartphone is ready to help. This sounds like one of the boons of the connected age, with our access to vast quantities of entertainment and information constantly at our fingertips.
It’s actually the opposite.
Here’s the thing about boredom: it’s actually really fucking good for you. It allows your mind to wander, to compartmentalise the day’s experiences. It allows you to reflect. All of these things are vital for writing engaging and effective prose, and yet we spend our days working so hard to cut out our chances to experience it because we’re scared of not being engaged for more than five minutes.
What you need to do is find ways to switch off, to let yourself become bored, to let your mind wander as it wishes. Not only is this good for you mentally, since it gives your head a break from the constant exposure to new information, you may very well find it boosts your creativity since it grants your head more opportunities to conjure up cool ideas.
So don’t turn your laptop on when you’re on the train, and keep your phone tucked into your pocket when you’re waiting for your coffee. Take long walks (a number of studies suggest that walking through nature is particularly beneficial to productivity), maybe go for a run. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the studies and the results don’t lie: being bored is good sometimes.
WRITING SUGGESTION #03: STRUCTURE YOUR DAY
Recently I came across an interesting quote from a Polish Rabbi named Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, which I think acts as a great summary of what I’m about to try and explain:
“[N]o amount of resolve will help a person unless he learns to budget his time and utilize it for accomplishment. For an undisciplined person’s days and nights are confusion, all of his time is confusion and is wasted. Every night he will say, ‘How did the day pass? I didn’t even feel it passing; it stole away from me and escaped.’ In this fashion, the next day and the following one will also slip away, wasted and used up on inconsequential matters.”
If you’re anything like me, the above passage will be painfully relatable. There are way too many weekends I’ve spent staring at screens, planning to get something done, only to suddenly realise it’s now 7pm and I’m supposed to be going out/it’s now 3am and why the fuck am I still awake. Left to it’s own devices, the brain is a whimsical little fucker that will happily remain in a state of perpetual distraction.
In order to get writing done, in order to remain productive, you need to find some way of structuring your time.
This is the part where people will start to get nervous and edge towards that ‘Back’ button, I suspect. Schedules and regimes come with all manner of negative connotations to a lot of people, after all, and that’s fair enough: all I ask is that you hear me out before you run away screaming.
Finding a way to effectively plan your day comes with all manner of benefits. It’ll help your writing for one, but one thing I’ve found since attempting to get my shit together and keep to a schedule is that I actually get more out of my day in general: I get more done at work, I find more time to spend with my fiance at home, I manage to complete tasks that normally go ignored or forgotten. Structures can be as binding or open as you want them to be. In fact, I’d encourage you to keep them open: it keeps them adaptable to the changes that inevitably spring up during the day.
What I’m gonna outline below is simply my way of doing things, currently, when it comes to keeping a schedule/structure. This isn’t set in stone, this isn’t the only way to do it, and it might not be for you. I strongly encourage you to experiment and and read up on different methods for keeping track of your time (for reading suggestions, check the ‘Books/Links’ section at the bottom of this post).
But anyways, here’s how I plan my days:
At the start of the day, I grab myself a piece of A5 and block the day out into periods of half an hour. Next to these periods I start scribbling in boxes representing half an hour/an hour/etc. of my time, filling them in with things that need doing. Just like that, I have myself an outline for how I’m going to spend my day. This isn’t something set in stone, as you can see in the picture above: as new situations arise and new opportunities/events come along, I make sure to adapt my schedule accordingly.
WRITING SUGGESTION #04: BREAK UP ROUTINES/GET OUT YOUR COMFORT ZONE
The story goes that J.K. Rowling really struggled to finish her final Harry Potter novel, ‘The Deathly Hallows’.
Probably something to do with feeling the pressure of needing to please her millions of series fans, if I had to guess.
Progress ground to a halt and Rowling apparently found she just couldn’t get back on the horse when it came to writing her book. Not ideal when you have a publisher deadline to meet and millions of fans waiting patiently. So she decided she needed to change things up a bit, take a different approach. Getting herself out of her own house, she booked herself into a room at the fancy-as-fuck Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh.
Having thus broken up her usual routine and dragged herself out her usual comfort zones, Rowling suddenly found the words flowing once again.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you book yourself into an expensive hotel every time you want to knuckle down and get writing done (though if you can afford to then more power to you, friend). But what this story highlights is just how effective changing things up can be for stimulating the creative process. Fancy Edinburgh hotels might not be feasible, but there’s nothing to stop you from getting yourself out of the usual spots you try to write in and off somewhere else.
This could be as simple a move as getting out of your office and writing in your living room. Or you might try what a lot of people do and go grab a seat at a nearby cafe. Speaking personally, I actually quite like heading down to a pub in the early afternoon when it’s nice and quiet if I’m wanting a different space to get something written in, which comes with the benefits of being a relaxed environment and an environment in which alcohol is readily available (win-win, in my book). Different locations will work for different people, and you should never be afraid to try out new ones. If a writing spot is getting a bit too stale and over-familiar, go try somewhere else out. Nothing’s stopping you.
Nobody ever claimed writing was easy. Or if they did, they were either liars or they were Stephen King. Knuckling down and getting serious about getting shit written can be a daunting task, whether you’re writing your magnum opus or just writing a reply to a fun little RP you have going with your friend. Both still require the same levels of drive and concentration to achieve, and both can very easily fall by the wayside or ultimately be abandoned purely because you couldn’t muster the energy or focus to finish them.
Finding ways to better organise yourself and create opportunities to focus on your craft are therefore extremely useful tools in your arsenal. The methods listed above are by no means exhaustive or authoritative. Hell, they might not even work well for you. What they represent are tips and tricks that have made a difference for me, and that I hope might do the same for you or at the very least put you on the path to finding ones that do.
Productivity isn’t just something that happens, is what I’m ultimately trying to say. It’s not some illusory, illusive thing that skips into your life briefly and then fucks off shortly after. It can be honed and developed if you employ the right skills and systems.
I’d like to finish this whole thing off with a request to anyone who’s read this far down the wall of text I’ve just assaulted your eyes with: if you have some tips and tricks that you use to help maintain productivity and focus, please share them below. You never know if your particular way of doing things might resonate with someone else and help them to develop their own ways of getting stuff done. The same goes for links to articles and books, if you have them: when it comes to reading up on this stuff you can never do too much of it.
Thank you very much for reading.
Now go get your shit together and write.