by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
If they gave out gold medals for procrastination, I’d have a display case full of them.
When you’ve freelanced fulltime as long as I have—nearly a quarter of a century—you learn and develop many useful skills. Nobody plans to get good at procrastinating but. . . hold on, my phone just buzzed. Sweet! Someone from church just forwarded a recording of the group that sang yesterday. They were so good! Oops, that reminds me that I forgot to email my friend that document I’d promised her. It’ll just take a second.
Good. That’s done. Wait, let me just get some water. . .
You may have heard the joke about how writing is 5 percent talent and 95 percent avoiding distractions. It can certainly feel that way. What can you do to shift those numbers and improve your focus?
- Identify your distractions so you can anticipate them and have a game plan.
- Are you a perfectionist? Just start somewhere. You can edit later.
- Are family or friends vying for your attention? Let the people close to you know that you need some undisturbed time for an hour or two or five.
- Do you think of constant connectedness (online) as normal? Do you feel like work and family and life pull you from the Internet instead of the other way around? Decide ahead of time how much time to spend online.
- Are you stressed about unmet obligations? Schedule those tasks to make sure they get done (and to reassure yourself they will get done).
- Start early. Give yourself the advantage by getting some work done before the first distraction comes along.
- Make sure you’re rested, comfortable, hydrated and fed (but not stuffed) so you can settle into your writing without interrupting yourself.
- Aim for privacy and silence. I don’t recommend working in a café unless people-watching is part of your research. If you don’t already have a home office, carve out a corner of your home as your writing nook—or go to a library. Don’t listen to music, or keep it soft and not too varied.
- Sign off all social media, close your email program, and turn off your phone, resisting the urge to check it. It’s a rabbit hole you will not easily or quickly climb out of. Emergencies should be the only exception.
- Simplify the assignment by breaking it down into smaller tasks. Tackle the hardest part first. Productivity experts talk about “eating the frog,” that is, doing the difficult thing rather than wasting time dreading it. And if you have to eat two frogs, they say, eat the uglier one first. (Ugh!)
- Take breaks. Pay attention to how tired you are, if you’re starting to hunch over, if you’re slowing down, if your eyes are feeling dry. Take five or ten minutes to stretch and refresh yourself and then keep going. Do not open Facebook!
- Keep your workspace organized so you don’t waste time looking for things. If you need reference books or notebooks while you work on your article or book, get those out ahead of time, and move anything unrelated out of the way.
- Reward yourself. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself an incentive. You may decide that for every hour you write, or for every 2,000 words, or for every chapter, you will treat yourself to something. It could be a snack or money you put in a piggy bank. Or perhaps the completion of your project earns you a movie night. Make it fun but realistic.
- Keep a running distractions page in a notebook or Word document. I recently spotted this trick somewhere so I haven’t tried it yet, but it makes sense. As you’re working, if you remember something that needs your attention, scribble it on a notepad or quickly switch tabs on your computer and add it to a separate document you can refer to later.
If you try all these techniques and still find yourself distracted and restless, stop and ask why. Are you tired? Sick? Afraid of failure? Lacking passion for your project? Take time to deal with what’s bothering you, pray, and ask someone else for help if necessary. Go for a walk, or work on a hobby to regroup and refocus. The time you spend recalibrating is less wasteful than sitting in front of your computer feeling uninspired and writing nothing.
We can’t eliminate all distractions, but having a game plan and sticking to it can mitigate their effect.