Maintaining your writing discipline: staying focused in an age of distraction

Sometimes I feel like an odd duck.

Ever since January 1st, I have not missed a day of writing. Every day, no matter what, I’ve set a 2-hour timer on my phone, using the Forest app, and I used that 2-hour period to stay focused on further developing A Thousand Roads. I average about 1000-1200 words of newly written material. On a bad day, I write about 700 words. On a really good day, such as earlier this week, I might push over 2000.

But on every day, I’ve spent focused time on A Thousand Roads, and the manuscript I’m working on has improved at accelerating pace. When I started, I was just trying to finish a second draft so I could put it away then figure out what to do next. Then the coals got warmer. By the end of the second draft I was so excited about the momentum I was generating that I saw ahead, shimmering like a mirage, the things I needed to do in a third draft to fix the big problems I knew remained in the second draft. Something about that momentum of showing up every single day, no excuses, and writing for 2 hours, pushed me to jump right into the third draft.

So I did.

I am now a few weeks away from finishing the third, and I’ll write a fourth, then a fifth, then a sixth. I’m entering the editing phases of production now, which will help further inform my revision choices, but needless to say writing every day has helped me appreciate that overcoming the obstacles between the crappy, disjointed work I’m in the midst of trying to fix and the final vision I have for this book is a matter of time in, not magic.

I’ve come to appreciate that writing a book is a bit like sorting through a room full of tangled string. One knot at a time, unraveling two twisted cords at a time, we sort through, we move around, we give up on one frustration and turn our time to another. It’s a mess and on any given day the prospect of sorting everything out seems hopeless.

But it’s the commitment to coming back regularly that adds up. Over time, we gain perspective. Through regular investment, we think about the sorting problem when we’re away so we can tackle it fresh when we come back. Over time, it all adds up and that hopelessly disastrous room becomes beautiful.

But, I’m an odd duck. Whenever I try to share this concept with writers I can tell they think I’m crazy, or there’s some kind of catch to what I’m telling them. Maybe I’m not really writing for 2 hours but I’m just playing Minesweeper to process some writer’s block.

The point is, I’ve been on the other side of the fence I understand how unbelievable it seems to look at someone who somehow makes sure they write no matter what. I dipped my foot in a little after I read On Writing by Stephen King and was inspired by his 7-day-a-week writing method, but it was really Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck that threw me in flailing — then swimming with grace.

Essentially, I came to a realization, after one of many mental breakdowns earlier this year when I despaired over whether I should give up on this writing thing or not (where I have no idea if there’s money) and just focus on editing (where I know there’s money). The realization: I am a writer, first and foremost, and I need to learn to work during work time and stop giving a f*ck beyond that. I was so moved by this that I got a red marker and wrote it on my whiteboard (it’s still there in my office and I look up at my bold F-word inspiration on daily basis).

At first it seemed contradictory. “What about growing my business?” “What about paying the bills?” “What if my writing doesn’t make money?”

As Mark Manson puts it in his book: not giving a f*ck is not about not caring. It’s about realizing you only have so many f*cks to give, and so you must give them carefully. And, for all those f*cks, there is a mighty f*ck that, if you could give a f*ck about nothing else, you’d pick above all.

For me, that’s writing. Interestingly, in the wake of this realization, where I went full feet in and sculpted my day around this habit, I found if anything, I started caring more about other areas of my life with much more passion. Why? Because I wasn’t scattered all over the map, scrambling to do everything indiscriminately. Now, at the least, I had one habit hardwired into my day, and given that this is the one thing above all I want to do with my life, having this accounted for as a matter of priority brought about a Zen-like calm within that rippled through all other aspects of my day and week.

When I’ve forced myself to spend 2 hours writing every day before anything else, I start thinking about how little time I have left to do everything else and now I have to use my time more carefully. Then I started seeing how this principle applies elsewhere, and now I’ve become even more productive in my work day and, most importantly, have stopped working earlier (getting more done in a work day than I used to) and spending time looking after myself, as well as keeping up a busy social life on weekends.

And suddenly, I started seeing how much time I’m wasting on the wrong things. The devil exposed: my iPhone.

I’ve written about action-drive versus reactive work, but today I want to hone in on this topic as it applies to maintaining our writing habit. Distraction is not our friend. Writing, especially, takes focus. It’s not just the kind of focus that you need to read a book or drive a car. It’s the kind of focus you need if you are a neurosurgeon doing a delicate surgery with someone’s life in your hands.

We do need to be connected, but our phones and social media apps we use on the computer will convince us we need to be a lot more connected than we actually are. Using the Forest app, I grow the equivalent of 10 hours of trees in a given day. This means that, for 4 2-hours periods, and 6 20-minute periods, my phone is out of use while I intentionally focus (2 of those 2-hour periods are during the evening when I’m not working, since I’ve found that I also waste time on my phone when I could be doing something more valuable like playing piano, gardening, or reading). I considered the alternative of just turning off notifications and checking messaging apps / emails 1-2 times / day, but the problem with that is I oversee several projects and many of them are time-sensitive — if one of my editors has hit a wall on a project and needs my help, I need to respond, so I prefer the shorter periods where I’m blocked from messaging apps so that I can get work done for a solid focus period, then respond quickly where I’m needed in the breaks between.

If you are struggling with distraction and how it’s killing your writing habit, or leading you to general frustration, then I hope I’ve inspired you to try some of these things out. I might seem like an odd duck, but really, I’m just following some basic principles that anyone can apply. And, as I look ahead into 2017, I get excited thinking, if this is the momentum I’m gaining from just 2 hours of writing per day, what will it be like when I can afford to write for 3, or 4…

I’d love to hear from you on your struggles with writing and distraction. Have you figured out a way to keep your writing goals front and center despite distractions and obligations?

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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5 Responses to Maintaining your writing discipline: staying focused in an age of distraction

  1. Pingback: Maintaining your writing discipline: staying focused in an age of distraction — John Robin’s Blog – I Suck at Writing

  2. Susan says:

    Discipline is a hard thing and I admire your dedication to the two-hour goal. I don’t know if I have a definitive response to staying focused although I try. I wish I could be a little more in the realm of not giving a f**k (a book I am going to have to read!), but unfortunately not giving one right now would mean not paying the mortgage, and I do need to give a hoot about that. But your blog reminds me that even if it isn’t the full two hours, carving out a specific amount of time each day, and shutting of the phone to do it, is something I need to do.

    • John Robin says:

      Hi Susan, absolutely true! For me, it’s 2 hours because I looked at what time I have and how long I need to work to make progress daily — I even experimented with different times, i.e. 90 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours, and found 2 hours is a sweet spot — at least right now where I still have work to do to pay my bills as well. But yes, Subtle Art is a GREAT read — there are some amazing perspectives in there that helps a lot with how we can take charge of our free time by taking charge of the free time wasted without our being aware of it.

  3. landofoyr says:

    i was lucky to live a writing surge before my son was born eight months ago
    i have a great amount of material that needs editing and i am now focusing on my blog and promotion. i hope during summer vacations i would try to write a short story for a competition but i don’t think i can manage writing yet

    • John Robin says:

      It’s all about however you find the balance — I think more often than not it’s about balancing over a long period of time vs something daily, as yes the times of year and different periods of life present better opportunities. Best with your short story and summer boost!

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