I’m pleased to report that I’m continuing to write almost daily, though the amount I get through before it becomes a battle to remain focused is still much less than it was earlier this year, when writing was an established part of my daily routine.
There are some skills, like cycling, that I can put down and pick up again as if I’d never spent a day out of the saddle; others, like knitting, require a conscious retraining of my mind and my muscles if it’s been too long since I last picked up the needles. Writing as a practice – sitting down to do it every day, without procrastination, and, having sat down, being able to keep my fingers moving even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired – is a skill it’s all to easy for me to lose.
After four months of writing not very much at all (a combination of going on holiday, coming back and looking for work, and then dealing with starting a new job), it’s taking a lot of conscious work to get back to place where writing is something I just sit down and do, not something that requires me to wrestle myself into the chair.
Experience tells me that the key here is practice – just keeping going until I build the habit again. But since I can’t just fast forward to the point where habit is enough, here are some tricks I’m using in the meantime to help me sneak past the desire to procrastinate:
Change your device
Computers are dangerous things. They contain useful tools like writing software and research tools, sure, but they also contain computer games, webcomics, Wikipedia, and a million other tempting distractions.
My desktop computer is where I play games and read comics, but my laptop is my working machine: when I sit down with the laptop, it’s to write, or to reply to emails, or otherwise to Get Things Done.
Technically, my laptop still contains the potential for computer games and comics. But because I haven’t built up the same mental association that exists between sitting down at my PC and firing up a diversion, the desire to do something fun and distracting doesn’t nag at my brain in the same constant way when I’m on the laptop.
I try to keep it that way by avoiding using the laptop for entertainments, even when I’m done with work for the day. It doesn’t matter that it would be easier to surf the net on my laptop than to go upstairs and fire up the PC; the point is to avoiding associating “laptop” with “messing around”.
If having two computers just isn’t practical, there are a few other ways to achieve a similar effect. For instance:
- Turn off your Wi-Fi or internet connection before you sit down to write
- Create a separate login for writing that takes you to a desktop with nothing but your writing tools visible on it
- If all else fails, get out the old notepad and pen (or, if you’re feeling adventurous, get a typewriter)
Change your location
In a very similar vein, finding somewhere new to write is a great way to break out of ingrained habits and associations.
Writing at home is a constant exercise in willpower. I’m surrounded by reminders of other things I could be doing: over there are the dishes waiting to be done; right here is the knitting project that’s just getting interesting; to say nothing of the shelves full of books tempting me from across the room.
If it’s a nice day, my favourite place to go write is in a local park – being outdoors tends to improve my mental health generally, so writing outdoors is just the trick. If the weather is bad, and especially coming into the brain-melting heat of an Australian summer, the local library is a great spot: air-conditioned, relatively quiet, and usually free of distractions as long as I stay out of the shelves.
Write with company
Staring at a screen while I tap away at my keyboard might not seem like a social activity, but writing with others is another great trick for improving focus.
At the moment I’m getting together most weeks with a member of my family who has her own interest in writing. She comes over after lunch, we chat a little, and then we both get our laptops out, put our heads down, and write for two or three hours straight until it’s time for her to go.
It might seem silly – it’s not like I’m asking her to stand over me and make sure the thing on my screen genuinely is a writing task – but just having someone else present and working quietly away does wonders for keeping my mind on the job too.
Some people like to talk while they write, or to make plans and compare notes together before and after, and if that’s your jam then that’s fine; personally, I like to work mostly in silence and to keep my writing ideas to myself, and that’s fine too. Just being together, in whatever way works best for everyone involved, does wonders.
And the delightful thing about writing together is that you’re not only getting help to get your own writing on – you’re helping someone else to write too.
But I don’t have anyone to write with…
If you don’t know anyone else who wants to write, your writing buddy doesn’t have to be writing as well – they could be coding, or knitting, or doing any quiet, focused activity that they want to make time for (though personally I find there’s something especially focusing about the sound of another keyboard or two tapping away nearby).
November is a particularly good time for getting together to write, since writers all over the place are coming together for National Novel Writing Month. I’m not looking to write a novel right now, but I’ve still signed up so that I receive notifications about local write-ins and related events.
If you’re looking for more tricks to get yourself writing when your brain struggles with it, here are a couple I’ve written about before. Or let me know in the comments – what’s a trick you use to stop procrastinating and start writing?