Today’s tip continues our series on writing productivity based on the book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time by Paul Hammerness, M.D., Margaret Moore, and John Hane. The first two articles are available on the blog; find the links at the end of today’s article.
Apply the Brakes and Write More by Rochelle Melander
What it looks like for writers: So after we’ve tamed the frenzy and focused on writing, we face another hurdle: getting off task. Think of this in terms of straightening up your family room. After you put away DVDs and set the remotes on the coffee table, you return a half-eaten bag of chips to the kitchen. You notice the chips cupboard is a mess. So you clean it up. When you toss the stale chips, the garbage overflows. So you take it out . . . and on it goes. Hours later, if you’re lucky, you’ll remember to finish cleaning the family room.
Most writers I work with travel off task in one of these five ways:
*External distractions. The phone rings. The dog pukes. The mail carrier rings the bell. Between texts and Twitter, barking dogs and noisy neighbors, it’s easy to let external distractions pull us away from our work.
*Unfinished business. In the middle of writing about our protagonist ‘s fight with her mother, we remember that we need to purchase a birthday gift for our own mom. We notice the stack of unpaid bills on our desk. We remember that we promised to call our best friend and didn’t. Although we’d like to keep writing, we feel like we have other things to attend to as well.
*New ideas. Our minds move fast and the ideas tend to come when we are busy writing. Unfortunately, these ideas do not respect our boundaries, so while we’re working on the novel, ideas for the nonfiction book or an article or a business plan pop up. Often the lure of a shiny new idea can take us away from the work we are doing right now.
*The “What if?” Road to Everywhere. When we’re busy writing, we might get nagging feelings like: I need to do more research, What if this fact is wrong?, What if there’s someone out there who thinks about this differently? This will lead us down the path of long Internet searches, trips to the library, or conversations with experts. Or we entertain possibilities like, What if I restructured the book, what if I added a new section, what if I wrote this in verse. Instead of writing forward, we’ve put ourselves back to square one: figuring it out.
*The “not good enough” phenomenon. This is the voice inside our head that doesn’t let us write two words before it shouts things like: No one will buy this, your characters sound stale, you don’t have the right education to be writing about this. We’re tempted to stop writing and check out books on how to better ourselves, look for writing conferences to attend, and perhaps even browse MFA programs.
How to apply the brakes:
First, acknowledge that “applying the brakes” is a necessary step in the writing process. Instead of feeling like, “Oh crap, there I go again, wandering over to another great idea, I really suck, I’m a horrible writer/person/worker” —accept that distractions happen. Everyone gets pulled off task. It’s part of the job. It’s how we deal with these distractions that counts.
In the book Improv Wisdom, author Patricia Ryan Madson presents lessons from the world of improvisational theatre. One of the maxims is, “Stay on course.” In this chapter, she invites readers to ask themselves repeatedly during the day, “What is my purpose now?”
Once you’ve noticed that you’ve been pulled off course, gently ask yourself, “What’s my purpose now?” If you’ve set aside the time to write then your purpose is to write. It is not time to tackle unfinished business or rearrange the book or clean out the pantry. Perhaps those tasks are already on the schedule. If so, remind yourself that it’s not time to clean. You’ve scheduled that for Saturday morning. Keep a notebook by your desk or a file open on your computer to jot down all the other tasks, worries, and ideas that threaten to pull you off course. Then go back to your work.
A final note. Distractions never go away but we do get better at ignoring them. When I first decided to abstain from email and social media until after I finished writing each day, I couldn’t focus for more than three minutes before I thought, “I should check Facebook.” After a month, I’m up to 30 minutes of writing time before my brain reminds me to check online.
Your turn: How do you “put on the brakes.”
Read the first two articles online: