Digital distractions, like social media, texting, email and the Internet in general, can easily take us away from our creative work. They not only ensure we stop concentrating on an important project. But they also can lead us to second-guess ourselves and that project in the first place.
“No matter what, I try to avoid Facebook when I’m writing because it immediately makes me compare myself to every single one of my friends,” said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters. “I see all the blog posts people are posting and I’m like, ‘Why the hell am I even writing this? Somebody already wrote it!’ which is the last thing a writer should worry about.”
Because we writers already have a long list of worries. Because the writing process is tough as it is. Because long before digital distractions, writers struggled to write, even when they had the necessary time and sustained concentration.
As Ralph Keyes writes in The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, E.B. “White worried over every word. He rewrote pieces twenty times or more and sometimes pleaded with his postmaster of North Brooklin, Maine, to return a just-mailed manuscript so he could punch up its ending or rewrite the lead.”
White once said: “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”
It can feel like there’s a lot working against us—especially because on top of the self-doubt, we do have a buffet of distractions. But you are by no means powerless. A huge help is having good systems and habits in place. Which will differ depending on your personality, preferences and the project you’re working on.
Below, writers share what works best for them—which you may or may not want to incorporate into your own writing or creative life.
Be thoughtful about where you write.
Poswolsky sometimes goes to a library or café that doesn’t have Wi-Fi. Because that means that he has to write. Maya Angelou regularly worked in stark hotel or motel rooms. The only items she’d keep with her were: a dictionary, Bible, deck of cards and bottle of sherry.
Identify your biggest digital (or any) distractions. Then think about where you can work that makes focusing easier, where these distractions are minimal (or maybe even non-existent). This also speaks to the importance of knowing yourself and what you need—and don’t need—in order to create.
Block off time.
Writer Lisa Hensley, who pens the blog Delighting in my Days about creative motherhood, prioritizes writing by blocking off spaces in her calendar. Each writing session consists of 20 to 30 minutes.
“I have topics and ideas already listed so there’s no content generation in that time frame. I also edit at a separate time so my writing time is strictly writing.” And the only program she uses when she’s writing is Evernote.
How can you be deliberate about your writing time?
Create structures that support your writing.
That’s what Lynda Monk does. Monk, a registered social worker and writing for wellness coach, schedules writing times, meets with a writing group, surrounds herself with inspiration and sets deadlines.
And, most importantly, she sits down to write. “I say to myself, ‘Now is time for my writing. Writing is my priority in this moment.’ Essentially, I keep giving myself permission to show up to my writing in the midst of it all.”
She also takes breaks to stretch and walk outside. When she returns, she takes deep breaths, notices any distractions and returns to writing. “In this way, writing becomes a mindfulness practice in my life: I sit, I breathe, I notice, I write (observe, feel and express through words).”
Track your writing.
Tracking can help you maintain momentum. “Cross off every day on a calendar after completing the work, trying not to break the chain,” Hensley said. “Once we get used to accomplishing real work, we can better overcome the temporary appeal of scrolling.”
Approach your project with reverence.
“Starting writing is one thing, completing writing projects is another,” said Monk, also co-author of Writing Alone Together: Journaling in a Circle of Women for Creativity, Compassion & Connection. She has a beautiful take on finishing our work: “Finishing is a form of devotion to the craft of writing; completion is a like a deep bow or reverence to our words, to the part of who we are that is a writer in this world, and to the project itself.” Finishing honors our voice in the world, she said.
Ultimately, “Be kind and compassionate with yourself. Writing is a courageous act,” Monk said. It’s hard to do with or without digital distractions. But maybe most powerful of all is reminding ourselves of our deeper, bigger purpose. Why do you write? What does writing mean to you?