As I type this, I can hear the video my daughter is watching on her phone (intense conversation between two characters, loud music, some shouting, a chase scene). The little dog is scratching at the back door to be let in. My phone is flashing a notification. Most of my writing time looks and sounds like this, because my desk is situated near the main living areas where life happens.
I write in the middle of the house—in the midst of everyday distractions.
A few years ago my husband and I chose to give up the dining room for entertaining guests and use it instead as an office so I could have a dedicated hub to organize the many facets of my days, including overseeing and being available to the kids; managing our administrative needs; writing books, messages and articles; recording a podcast; editing for individuals, organizations and an indie publishing house; and building a writing coach business. It all happens, for the most part, right here…right in the middle of the dogs and the kids and the Netflix videos.
I love our kids and want them to be able to watch a show without tiptoeing around afraid to disrupt their mom’s work. Our dogs bring us great joy, and I’m willing to let them in and out throughout the day. I like to stay in touch with friends online, even at risk of tumbling into that social media black hole. My writing life is plunked down in the middle of the rest of my life, and I’m making it work as best I can.
What about you? How are you distracted in the middle of your everyday life? Do your distractions stem more often from the people around you or the environment in which you work?
If you write at a coffee shop, sounds of the conversation between people at the next table over, the chinking of cups behind the counter, and the loud whirr of the grinder can distract. It’s the trouble of many public workspaces. If you write on a break at your full-time job, you’ll hear the sounds of copiers and phones and discussions while trying to create. At home, anything from the dryer buzzer to a utility company drilling on your street can mess with your writing mojo. Phone or computer notifications, social media temptations, multitasking all pull our attention away from the work of writing.
If you sneak your writing in during lunch hour at your day job, your coworker may drop by and say hello, thinking you’re free to chat. If you’re at home, your spouse might step in with a quick question: “Hey, sorry to bother. Have you seen the car keys?” A neighbor knocks on the door and asks for help carrying furniture. Your friend phones to say she’s got an emergency and needs you to drive carpool today after all. Your preschooler shuffles in with a blankie and a book, asking you to read a story. I can’t tell you whether or not to read the book, drive the carpool, carry the couch, or search for the keys (though I encourage you to be patient, kind, and generous with every person involved), but I do have strategies for how to regroup and reorganize if you’ve been yanked out of your zone.
A note on minimizing distractions completely: To maximize distraction-free writing time, we may have to go into lockdown, launching preemptive tactics to stop distractions before they happen. Lockdown mode positions us for greater focus when a deadline looms or a big project demands significant progress. Stay tuned, because I’ll be writing about that in more detail in a future article.
7 Strategies for Getting Back on Track
Sometimes the distraction amounts to nothing more than a momentary hiccup. Other times, the distractions and disruptions throw me so far off track, I’m completely derailed. Either way, how do we get back on track? My PMP® Certified Project Manager husband, who also serves as my business advisor, worked with me to highlight the following proven strategies to get back on track. They’ve helped him, they’ve helped me, and they can help you, too.
1. Set Up a Return System
Create a system that marks your spot so you can return to what you were doing at the point of interruption or distraction and ease back into the words.
- Highlight text: If you’re on your computer, use the highlighter option on the text where you were working or type in ALL CAPS a quick note about the next thought or action you planned.
- Color marks the spot: If you were working with physical files, keep a brightly colored paper on hand you can stick sideways in a stack or a colorful Post-it you can stick on the page to mark where you were reading, editing, or proofreading.
- Jot a thought: Write on a Post-it what you were thinking at the moment of interruption, even if it’s merely a key word or phrase. Stick it on your to-do list, desk, keyboard or monitor to help you find your way back. You could grab any piece of paper to do this, but a Post-it is less likely to get lost.
- Check the checklist: If you’re working your way down a checklist, make sure the item currently in progress is moved to the top (if digital) or underlined, circled, or highlighted (if analog), so you know where to start up again.
- Bring up the main app: If your distraction or interruption has you switching apps on the computer, from Word to browser to email, switch to the main one before you get up—the one that will help you focus on your writing upon your return.
2. Accept the Setback
We want to push ourselves, set high goals, and be persistent and determined writers, but when we’ve been distracted and derailed, we’ll be frustrated—our well-laid plans have gone astray! If you planned to work for three hours and lost 45 minutes carrying the neighbor’s couch, you’ll struggle to meet your goal. Be willing to accept the setback, remembering you did make progress that day, even if it wasn’t the perfection you were hoping for.
3. Take a Moment
It’s tempting to dive back into the work, haphazardly shuffling papers, or to tumble into emails, reacting to each request that pops into the inbox. Avoid a frantic re-entry by taking a minute to regroup. Simply stop. Stretch. Take a deep breath, then another. When you ease back into the work with a calmer mind and spirit, you’ll produce stronger, clearer writing.
Time to refocus. To do so, lean on your return system: Read the phrase you wrote on the Post-it, re-read your last paragraph, review your checklist, or revisit your main app. It’s time to remember where you were and start again. With renewed focus, see if you have energy to push harder and find yourself truly back on track, where you would have been before.
5. Adjust Your Plan
If you’re so off schedule you don’t think you’ll be able to accomplish your goals and objectives, it’s time to be realistic. Adjust the day’s plans. Prioritize by urgent deadlines and important tasks, putting off what you can. Yes, it’s frustrating, but you already accepted the setback and gave it your best shot.
6. Make Tomorrow’s Plans as Bold as Today’s
Being thrown off from our schedule and intentions can leave us discouraged and demotivated. We think this one day is how every day is going to unfold, and we’re afraid to set apart a block of writing time the next day. “I’ll just get interrupted again,” we think, “so why even try?”
Make the plans. Schedule the writing time. Show up tomorrow and assume the best. Today with its interruptions was just one day; tomorrow is another day, a different day, with its own fresh opportunities.
Whether you’re a professional writer or not, whether you have another job or not, when you sit down to do the work of writing, treat it like your job. Do all you can to complete the tasks. You need grit to succeed, and you’ve got it (even if you’re a low-grit writer, you grow in grit every time you overcome a hurdle). Next time you’re facing a distraction or interruption—especially one that could be used as an excuse to escape the work if it’s feeling hard—commit. Commit to the time. Commit to the work. Commit to the writing and the writing life.
And when you find yourself distracted, recommit.
When we write in the middle of everyday life, we’ll face varying levels of distractions. The key is to return to the work and find our flow again.
What are your top distractions?
What are your top strategies for getting back on track?
I’d love to hear your personal struggles and solutions! Please drop your responses in the comments or respond on Twitter and tag me @annkroeker.
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For further reading:
- 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
- Five Writing Strengths: What are yours? Can you leverage them to help you get back on track?
- Progress, Not Perfection: This podcast episode will remind you to celebrate any and all progress you make.
Image design by Isabelle Kroeker.
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Diana Trautwein says
This stuff is GOLD, Ann. I’ve got a very dear husband who loves to share things he’s reading or watching. But too often when I hear his sandals flopping down the hallway, I cringe. Sad, isn’t it? Sometimes I’m writing. But sometimes I’ve chosen a distracting change of pace — like a game or some reading. Those last ones aren’t so bad (unless it’s a lumosity game and those CANNOT be interrupted – they’re on a timer and the pause button doesn’t work on all of them!). If I am ever to get back to the big project, I’ve got to figure out a way to establish some clear boundaries. Sigh.
Ann Kroeker says
I’m so glad you could grab some of these ideas next time you’re nervous about shifting from one thing back to your main goal. And I DO hope you get back to the big project–clear boundaries sounds like a great early planning step to give yourself the best possible odds of making progress.
Sandra J says
Ann – I love that you’ve chosen to work ‘in the middle’ of life – it’s a beautiful gift to your family, and it’s a beautiful picture of life’s realities, which happen in and amidst our best laid plans. Your advice is solid and sound – accept, adjust, plan bold, commit…and more. I appreciate your wisdom!
Ann Kroeker says
Thank you, Sandra! I appreciate your thoughts here, and the way you position it in light of family and parenting.
Great post. Love that you don’t recommend closing the door and trying to hide from everything.
Building a “return system” will be hugely valuable.
Ann Kroeker says
Thanks for taking time to read and comment, Morgan. The return system is so important so we don’t waste time trying to find where we were. Hope it helps you!