Dealing With Distractions While You Write

17 May 2012

 Image by birgerking


Last week I asked for comments on how you deal with distractions, especially when you’re trying to focus on writing.


Pomodoro technique

Thanks to Scott, who shared his approach:


‘I'm learning to deal with interruptions by making them "visible". I write
them down. Then I ask myself "urgency questions." Do I have to attend to
this today? If I must, can it wait until I'm done with this current task? 
According to Francesco Cirillo, author of The Pomodoro Technique, even the most
urgent interruptions can wait.
I learned this strategy as part of the Pomodoro Technique. 
Page 9 of the free downloadable book
specifically addresses external and internal interuptions (’


Too many temptations

Another problem is having easy access to everything on the Internet. After all, checking Facebook or watching YouTube videos is so much more fun than writing. So we often put off working on things that require concentration. (I have no issue with taking a short ‘fun’ break to check Facebook; just don’t let it take too much of your time.)


Some years ago I read The Artist’s Way at Work. One of the practices the authors of this book recommend is to get up half an hour early every morning and write 10 pages by hand – something they call ‘Morning Papers’.


I spent several months writing ‘Morning Papers’. While the purpose of that exercise was largely for self-reflection, I also discovered that it’s possible to get tons of writing done in just a short time. And because they were written by hand, I wasn’t tempted by all the distractions on the computer.


Breakthrough writing

Recently I had a breakthrough experience with focused writing. I woke up very early one morning thinking about some feedback I wanted to give to trainees on the presentations they had given the day before. Rather than opening email first (my normal practice), I just opened Word and started drafting as fast as I could. In about 30 minutes, I had written nearly 1,000 words with very little effort.


At one point during this writing session, my husband walked into my office and started talking. I was polite for about a minute and then nicely said, ‘I’m really into some writing now. Could we talk later?’ He happily obliged and left (without even asking me what we were having for breakfast!). I’m sure that you could use a similar tactic with co-workers who stop by your desk to chat about something when you’re trying to focus on a task.


I should take this lesson to heart much more frequently, because it really works. Get up, pick up paper and pen (or turn on the computer – opening only the word processing application) and just start writing.



A big reason why we have a hard time dealing with distractions is that we really don’t want to be doing stuff that needs to be done.


Mark Forster has developed several versions of a system that help you overcome this problem. It’s called ‘Autofocus’, and it’s like a ‘to-do’ list on steroids. With the Autofocus system, you keep a dedicated notebook with ongoing page-long lists of everything you need to do – from paying bills to running errands to writing – everything. If you’re working on something and another ‘to do’ comes to mind, just jot it down on the list and go back to the task at hand.


At the start of a new day, read through your list. Choose 3 things you want to work on first, and write a little dot to the left of those three items. Then, start working on the one nearest the bottom of the page.


When that task is complete, cross it off and go on to the next item. When you complete those three things, choose one or two more if you have the time and energy and continue working. (Remember to add ‘fun’ stuff to the list.)


The Autofocus system works great for me. I like it for three reasons:

1.    As soon as something comes to mind I can write it down and then not worry about forgetting it. (This is great for people of a ‘certain age’.)

2.   I get to choose what to work on first. Even though I often choose things in priority order, I feel more in control over what to do. This power of choice is a major contributor to the success of the system.

3.   Crossing items off the list gives me a great sense of satisfaction, especially at the end of the day when I see lots of crossed-out tasks.



Do you have other systems to help you focus on work and deal with distractions? Please share them in the comments. Thanks!




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