Most of us write in the middle of life—even in the midst of parenting and motherhood—and find ways to get back on track after being thrown off by everyday distractions.
But sometimes a deadline looms or a big project demands we make significant progress. In those scenarios, we need dedicated, distraction-free writing time and can’t waste time letting the dog in and out or risk the inevitable interruptions from people popping in with questions.
To meet those deadlines, we may have to go into lockdown, launching preemptive tactics to stop distractions before they happen.
Experiment with the following list of creative methods for maximizing distraction-free writing to find what works best for your situation on any given day. Entering lockdown mode positions us to maximize distraction-free writing by increasing one of a writer’s top assets: focus.
Creative Methods to Maximize Distraction-Free Writing
Here’s an overview of recommended methods and tactics you can use to maximize distraction-free writing:
- Set up and Reinforce Work-at-Home arrangements
- Shut Out the World
- Secondary In-Home Workspace
- Off-site, In-Town Location
- Off-site, Out-of-Town Location
1. Set Up and Reinforce Work-at-Home Arrangements
Have a pow-wow with roommates or family members to communicate your work-at-home writing space and schedule needs—let them know that at times you’ll have to block out everything for long periods of time. Generate ideas together, because when you share living space with others, an open discussion helps everyone be heard. After arrangements are finalized, try to reinforce them with reminders—and tell others outside the home when you’re available, as well.
- Visual cue: Hang or post a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your office door. If you don’t have a door, put a chair in the opening to your space or cubicle and hang the sign on that. Think up a visual cue that everybody who might interrupt will recognize, understand and respect (consider an image for younger kids, rather than text only).
- Work Hours: Try to schedule writing and tackle non-writing tasks related to your writing during the same chunk of time each week. Block if off to create a pattern for you and for your friends and family to adjust to.
- Discuss your work hours with roommates or the family so everyone you live with will understand that just because you’re home doesn’t mean you’re available.
- Post the hours on your door as a reminder.
- Block those hours off on the family calendar, whether it’s a physical calendar hanging in the kitchen or a shared calendar app.
- Communicate your work hours to close friends, as well. If you tell them you work every morning 9:00 to noon, they’ll likely support your schedule and look for afternoon and evening events to get together with you. If they don’t know your hours, why wouldn’t they phone you at mid-morning for a coffee date invitation?
- Communicate your status: Automate some of your explanation to minimize interruptions and distractions.
- Consider creating for your work hours or work days an outgoing email response that says something like, “Thank you for your note. I keep strict writing hours from 9 to noon every morning and check email after those hours. I’ll get back with you soon,” or, “This weekend is my writing retreat, so you won’t hear back from me until Monday afternoon. Thanks for your patience. I’ll get back with you soon.”
- Change your IM status: For any instant message systems you are connected to, change your status to unavailable or do not disturb while writing.
- Develop a system for true needs: First, review what a true need really is; then, see if you can come up with an approach for both children and adults to get your attention and await your response.
- Children: If you have young children, patiently work on step-by-step approach for how to interrupt in the most patient, least disruptive way possible. Most concerns are not life-threatening, and children can learn to wait five to ten extra seconds while you complete a thought, finish a sentence, or write your thought on a Post-it to mark your spot. We used to have our kids place a hand on my arm if I was standing (or my shoulder if I was sitting). I would acknowledge this by placing my hand briefly on theirs, and they were to wait those extra few beats knowing I would indeed turn to them, ready to listen. These interruptions were to be infrequent and truly important, and I’d take a second to affirm that choice or explain why a request did not meet those qualifications.
- Adults: You may be a caregiver for an older parents and need to stay on-call for emergencies or simply to offer daily contact, or your spouse may truly need your help with something. Invent a plan that works for the unique personalities and relationships involved. For example, maybe phone your parent first thing after your writing time ends—he begins to adjust to that hour for your daily check-in and no longer phones in the middle of your work hours. Your spouse and you can agree on what constitutes a true need and create a system that makes sense—perhaps a more sophisticated version of the children’s hand-on-shoulder approach.
2. Shut Out the World
Some distractions come from my own temptations. I know my temptations, and you know yours. Many are in our control to manage or postpone in order to accomplish daily writing goals. Here are some ideas for minimizing common everyday distractions that tempt us from entering and staying focused in lockdown mode:
- Shut the door (if you have one): Now, I don’t mean to complain, but my dedicated office space is in a former dining room that has doorways to pass through from one room to the next, but no doors. So I can’t do this, but maybe you can. If you have an office door, shut it during lockdown mode.
- Silence your phone and/or turn off notifications: Turn off notifications or silence the phone and set it aside.
- Get the phone out of there: If turning off notifications isn’t enough to keep you from peeking, power it down. If that doesn’t work, hide it or entrust it to someone willing and able to keep it safe and hold you accountable.
- Turn off the Internet or log out of social media on your computer to maximize focus in Word, Google Docs, or Scrivener so you can meet your writing goals.
- Turn on focusing features: You can install focusing apps like Ommwriter, but why not use what you already have? To hide all the formatting features in your existing writing app and free yourself to simply write:
- Scrivener provides “full-screen composition mode” (a button with two arrows pointing out)
- Microsoft Word (under the View tab) has “Focus” mode
- Google Docs under View has “Full Screen” mode
- All of these can be quickly exited by pressing the escape (Esc) button. Entering these focusing modes will help you simply write.
- Invest in noise-canceling headphones: Block out noise and offer a visual cue to others that you are mentally occupied by using headphones. Tune in to non-distracting music. For me, that’s usually instrumental music.
3. Secondary In-Home Workspace
Establish a second, more secluded or remote in-home workspace that can offer silence and solitude for distraction-free writing.
- The bedroom: The bedroom is often a good choice because it’s designed to be set apart, with a door that can shut. This is my secondary space. When the kids practice piano or play the Wii, I escape to the bedroom, pull the door shut (my bedroom has a door!), and experience relative quiet with almost no distractions. Now that I’m podcasting, the bedroom doubles as my recording studio, so, similar to posting work hours, I hang a sign outside my bedroom door that says “On Air” or “All Clear.”
- The basement: Not everyone has a basement, and not every basement is safe to write in for hours on end. But if you have one, and if it is habitable, perhaps this could be your writing bunker?
- Attic: Not many houses have usable attics, but if yours has one and you could clean it up and make minor modifications, you might be able to set this apart as your writing tower.
- Walk through the amenities of your apartment complex, consider its common areas: Is there a corner of a lounge or a work station you could sign up for? If you aren’t sure or if you don’t see anything, ask the landlord for ideas. Maybe there’s a nook you don’t even know about that she’d be glad to let you use.
4. Off-site, In-Town Workspace
Maybe I need a change of pace, maybe someone’s drilling in our front yard, maybe the neighbors are throwing a party, or maybe I learn that my kids invited friends over for the afternoon to watch a movie. Whatever the reason, sometimes I like to slip away completely. In those scenarios, I relocate to an off-site location somewhere in town.
- Avoid Humans app: I just found (but have not tested) an app called Avoid Humans, designed to find you a location in your area with the fewest number of people. It draws from Foursquare and Instagram check-ins to show you which locations are great escapes for writers seeking low-distraction spots to set up and work. Try it and report back!
- Coffee shops: A lot of writers swear by the coffee shop writing experience. Unless you are someone who can tune out the world, I don’t recommend coffee shops because they are a hive of distractions. But if you are someone who tunes things out, it’s nice to mix things up from time to time. Be sure you don’t lose too much valuable writing time transitioning from home to coffee shop and back again, or use it to begin thinking and planning.
- Libraries: Americans, let your tax dollars support your writing life by taking advantage of a free, off-site location to work uninterrupted: your local library. Some libraries have dedicated study rooms you can sign up to use for an hour or two, and almost all have areas with carrels that have tall sides to create visual blinders that help you focus. Though libraries are no longer as silent as the old days, seek out quiet zones like a reading room or the carrels positioned near the adult nonfiction stacks. Avoid the children’s department.
- Coworking space: My friend and colleague Charity Singleton Craig joined a coworking space that provides a fun, professional writing environment. She tells the story that led her to seek it out, and joining MatchBOX means she can get out of the house and really focus on her work. See if your city has a coworking space you can join.
- Creative arrangements for rented space: Ask small business owners you know if they would rent out an unused cubicle or office to you one or more days a week so you can find concentrated time to focus. To experiment, you could ask for a one-time trial, where both of you could try it out just one day or one week; if it obviously isn’t going to work for one or the other, either of you can say no to future visits.
- Borrowed space: Does a friend have a nearby cabin you can use during the work week or does your neighbor have an unused play house he built when his now grownup kids were little (writing cabins are popular these days)? Maybe he’d let you use it for your writing life, if you just ask. Would a family member let you swing by while he’s at work so you can set up at his kitchen table? Would your place of worship have a little library or sitting area you could work in once a week?
5. Off-Site, Out-of-Town Workspace
Though you don’t want to use up all your writing time traveling, from time to time, you may need a personal, solitary writing retreat away from home or office. For that, I suggest you schedule a day or a weekend away and escape to an off-site, out-of-town location to dive in to your work, uninterrupted, in a place where nobody knows your name. To maximize writing time, I suggest you avoid telling anyone but your emergency contact. If you’re serious about making progress, you’ll need to minimize contact with the outside world. (Don’t tell the family, but you could actually arrange for some of these in town.)
- Hotel room: Look for discounts online, book a room, pack some snacks, and check in for a day or weekend of work.
- Retreat centers: Protestant church denominations, Catholic organizations, artist colonies, and writing organizations may have retreat centers with rooms available for individuals to rent.
- Bed and breakfasts: Search online for some bed and breakfasts in your region, and tell the host the goal of your visit so he or she can be aware of (and maybe protect) your work hours.
- State and National Park lodging: Don’t overlook state and national park facilities close to home.
- KOA or other campground cabins: If you can handle a minimalist setup, look into renting a camping cabin. Pack simple foods like sandwiches, nuts, and snacks for quick nourishment, so you can stay focused on your writing project.
- Borrowed or rented out-of-town space: Use some of the same strategies as you would when seeking an in-town, local facility—ask a friend to borrow his nearby cabin for a weekend or offer to house-sit for your relatives when they’re traveling (call it house-sitting, but it’s really a writing getaway).
Yes, You Can!
Yes, you can maximize distraction-free writing time in the middle of life. It’ll take some creativity, experimentation, coordination, and grit, but you can arrange a space where you shut out as much as possible and focus on the work.
Then, enter lockdown mode.
- Write in the Middle: How to Write in the Midst of Motherhood
- Write in the Middle of Everyday Distractions: 7 Strategies for Getting Back on Track
- Write in the Middle: Yes, You Can Maximize Distraction-Free Writing
- The Writing Life with Ann Kroeker: One Thing Every Writer Needs to Succeed (podcast)
Is your writing life all it can be?
Let this book act as your personal coach, to explore the writing life you already have and the writing life you wish for, and close the gap between the two.
“A genial marriage of practice and theory. For writers new and seasoned. This book is a winner.”
—Phil Gulley, author of Front Porch Tales