Five Things That Will Derail Your Writing

Five things that will zap my productivity and derail a writing day like nothing else* are a lack of sleep, technology/internet, excessive noise, not knowing what needs to be done next and skipping breaks.

Lack of sleep

This is a tricky one to talk about because we are both in control and not in control of our sleep patterns. A bad night’s sleep doesn’t always derail my productivity, but it does influence what tasks I chose to complete. If I’m sleep deprived, I probably won’t tackle heavy tasks like reading theoretical scholarly texts or writing assignments. If I’m feeling weary, I tend to tackle lighter tasks like writing blogs, editing vlogs or catching up on domestic chores and errands. Of course, there are also times when you just have to take the damn day off.

There are habits you can develop that both assist and hinder your quality of sleep. Avoiding blue-light (laptops, mobiles and even televisions), keeping the room cool, minimising all forms of light and noise from your bedroom and engaging in relaxing activities at least one hour before bed are all good practices to improve your quality of sleep. Doing the exact opposite of this may not affect your sleep, but if you’re struggling to get eight hours of shut-eye, reassessing your sleep-time habits and developing new healthier ones is a must.

The internet, email and social media

This one is fairly obvious, right? The internet/technology is an endless source of interruption with all those bells and dings that alert us whenever we get an email, text or phone call. It is so easy to distract ourselves with social media, email and texting. It is so easy to reach for our phone or web browser whenever a task feels too hard or a problem arises and we don’t know how to fix it. Unless you have an iron will – some days I do and some days I don’t – the best way to combat this problem is by turning off your devices, including your wifi. An even better solution is relocating your workspace to a place where there is no wifi! Hello, dingy café!

Excessive noise

I prefer writing in silence, but that’s not always possible. While I can easily tune out a little background noise, the sound of the television, music playing or people talking can become very distracting. If you can’t relocate your workspace, then I highly recommend that you check out the website ambient-mix.com. This site contains a wide variety of looped white noise soundtracks including Sherlock’s Apartment and Griffindor Common Room. It’s not silence but when combined with a comfy pair of headphones it’s the next best thing.

Not knowing what needs to be done next

This point pertains to just about everything from academic and creative writing to your good old general to-do list. It is so easy to waste time when you don’t know what needs to be done in order to move forward.

If I start a writing session without knowing what needs to happen next, I can waste 10-30 minutes staring at the screen or writing waffle because I’m trying to write my way into the story rather than writing the story. If I refer to my outline or if I spend five minutes writing a mini-outline, then I can dive right into the story because I know what has to happen next.

When it comes to general to-do lists, it’s not always easy to determine which tasks are the priorities. A lengthy to-do list can leave us feeling scatterbrained and overwhelmed, especially when every task seems vital and urgent. Our inner taskmaster will try to convince us that everything is important and everything needs to be done right now, but that is rarely the truth. A simple way to combat this problem is to consider which tasks (if any) have deadlines. If so, start with those – especially if the deadline is soon. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to re-examine your list and ask yourself if any of these tasks can be broken into smaller tasks. For example, you may be torn between writing your next assignment or working on your thesis. Given that your assignment is due first, that task needs to be made the priority. If you are working on a long-term project like writing a thesis, you need to break that HUGE task into small manageable steps like read five journal articles this week and write a 500-word piece that summaries what you’ve learned or find ten sources that will help you write the first chapter.

Skipping breaks

This bad habit has two different forms. First, there is the chugging away day after day after day which can quickly lead to burn out and a week spent on the couch staring at the ceiling or Netflix if that’s your jam. The second is when you work for five hours straight – no stretching, no toilet breaks, no water, no lunch – and then collapse in a heap at 2pm.

Taking a break can seem like a lousy idea when you’re in the flow. And look, if you don’t take a break, the writing police aren’t exactly going to kick down your door, but most of the time we aren’t working in a frenzy because the muse has whacked us with her inspiration stick, we’re simply working. And when you’re simply working, make sure you take regular breaks.

You may enjoy using the Pomodoro technique of working for either 25 or 45 minutes and then having a 5 or 15 minute break. These mini-breaks give you a chance to peel your eyes away from the screen and to stretch your body, get some water or go to the bathroom. Do not check your phone! The idea of these breaks is to get your eyeballs off blue-light screens.

In addition to these physical needs, it also gives your brain a rest! Dani Shapiro said that smoking used to be one of her best writing habits because it allowed her to fully relax for a couple of minutes. This was back in the early nineties i.e. no phones. These days, we fill our “breaks” with social media and texting. Rather than allowing our mind to relax and become empty, we fill them up with images, posts and Insta quotes. Please note, I am not advocating that you take up smoking but what I am saying, and Anne Lammot will back me up here, is that everything works again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you! Giving your brain a mini power down is a great way to ensure that you get the most out of a work day. Instead of going hard and burning out after a couple of hours, you can steadily putt through an entire day.

These five things may be small, but the impact they have on your level of productivity can be huge. Thankfully, all five of these distractions and interruptions can be overcome with a little planning and a splash of will power. Don’t let anything get in the way of finishing your story or reaching your writing goals, not even Instagram!

(*Disclaimer: this list does not include the interrupts and emergencies that life can throw at us. Instead, it focuses on the inconveniences we can control).

How to get the most out of a writing session

We all have looming deadlines whether they be personal or professional. If you have a full-time job, if you’re studying or if you have a family or other commitments, chances are you struggle to find time for writing. For a lot of us, writing is something that happens in the fringes. Maybe you write for an hour every weekday morning before you head into the office or maybe you’re lucky to carve out an hour on the weekend. Regardless of when, where and how often you write, these slithers of time are precious and you need to make the most of them. This week, I’m listing the four steps you can take to maximise your productivity within any given writing session.

If you prefer to video content, you can watch this week’s video here.

Be selective in your location

Writers can be pretty precious when it comes to our writing environments. I often take my laptop with me when I’m travelling and I always set out with the best of intentions. Although I manage to achieve some writerly goals while on the road, the moment I leave the comfort, ease, and familiarity of my day-to-day environment and routine, I struggle. My usual focus and discipline disappear and I have to white-knuckle my way through the drafting, revising and publishing process.

That being said, the types of distraction that occur while travelling can also occur at home, so you need to be clever in the selecting of your writing location.

Let’s say you prefer to stay home and write in your study on the weekends. Though you may love the convenience of being able to get up and make a cup of tea, go to the bathroom or sloth around in your sweatpants, the reality is that writing at home can be counterproductive, especially if you live with others. Your spouse may knock on the door and entice you with suggestions of a cafe lunch, the kids might burst in and beg you to take them to the park or you may simply look out your office window and notice that the lawn needs to be mowed, the car needs to be washed or the washing needs to be taken off the line. Even if you set yourself up in a room with a lockable door, there is a good chance that domestic distractions will come a-knocking anyhow.

If this is the case for you, consider getting out of the house and setting yourself up at either a library or at a café, I believe that a coffee an hour is the going rate for occupying a table. If you opt for the latter option, again be selective. Don’t set yourself up at a café where you know there is a high probability of running into someone you know. If you find the noise inside cafes too distracting, you can either opt for noise cancelling head phones, venturing out at off peaks times or you can pick daggier cafes that are less busy.

Turn off your devices

Dani Shapiro has often compared writing on a laptop with internet access as akin to writing at an amusement park – there are just so many distractions! If you want to get the most out of your writing session, then you need to turn off the devices or features that are likely to distract you. That means any device that rings, buzzes or has a colourful touch screen. If you’re writing at home, switch off your wifi or invest in one of those nifty apps that blocks your access to the internet and others apps for a set time period. Now there may be instances when you can’t turn off your phone because you’re expecting an important phone call or perhaps you prefer to be available in case of emergency. If that’s the case, then at the very least I recommend that you turn your phone on silence and that you make use of apps such as Freedom that way you aren’t tempted to quickly Google something or check your social media feed anytime you hit a rough spot in your manuscript.

Set yourself up before you start

Regardless of whether you are writing at home or at a library or café, you need to set up your workspace before you start writing. If you’re writing at home, clear your desk, have your research notebooks close at hand, fill up your water bottle, open or close the window, turn on the aircon or heater, slip on a pair of socks and have a snack close at hand if you wish. For me, I place a small vase of flowers on my desk and I bring my dog and her bed into the room with me. Not only do these small tasks minimise the likelihood of interruptions, it also sends a signal to the brain that you’re about to start a writing session and it’s time to get serious.

The five-minute outline

Now, I know that some people detest outlining and that’s fine. If you have a process that you’re comfortable with and you don’t want to change it then that’s your decision. However, one of the best ways to increase the productivity of your writing session is to know what you are going to write before you sit down to write it.

Before you open your word doc, spend five minutes roughly outlining what it is you’re going to write. If you’re working on a novel, do a rough outline of the main story beats that need to occur within the next scene, what that scene is trying to achieve, which characters are present and where they are. If you’re working on an article or blog, break that piece down into dot points or subheadings.

Those first few minutes of any writing session are always going to be painful.

We all know what it is like to push through that initial resistance.

Eventually…usually… you can break through that mental barrier and the words begin to flow. The length of time it takes to get over this mental hurdle lessens when you know where your story or articles is going, and what it is you are trying to achieve with that piece.

So there you have it guys, those are my four quick tips for a successful writing session. If you have any tips of your own that you would like to suggest, feel free to leave a comment in the section below. If you’re into social media, you can find me on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.

Happy writing!