Distracted is my middle name.
Or maybe it’s more of a problem than phrasing it that way let’s on. As in: “Hello, my name is Rhonda and I am distracted." But in all caps: DISTRACTED.
Not all the time, but I do watch for the signs.
Today, before sitting to write I did the following 7 things:
That’s about 90 minutes of flaffing about before I made myself start my writing ritual and get down to it. If I’d spent that time working on my novel, I’d probably have 3 more pages done.
Sometimes I get to the page out of sheer boredom with my own monkey mind and ancient patterns. And I’m okay with that.
I’ve been at it long enough now to know that it’s possible to settle the mind to write even when my monkey mind has spent the morning leaping from tree to tree in the Apple orchard that is my iPhone.
It’s not like there aren’t legitimate reasons to be distracted. There’s the never-ending list of life maintenance, family needs, trolls on Twitter, climate change, the economy, and are we at war with [insert country here] yet?
Even when I put the phone down, papers need filing (do they though?), fridge needs cleaning (later), car needs an oil change (sometime this month), so many books to read (eventually)…
Do you do this too? Do you do EVERY SINGLE BLOODY THING except sitting your arse in the chair to do the writing you promised yourself you’d do? Then look at the minutes you have left and decide you’d better wait for another day when you feel less distracted?
This is a habit I’ve fallen in and out of so often I still have the bruises on my soul to show for it. Because the other thing I’ve learned over the years is that I’m a better person when I’m writing. Something about attending to my need to write makes me more patient with the rest of life. (If you ever meet me in a cranky mood, feel free to ask me if I’ve written yet that day.)
Even now, having already written today, knowing I want and intend to finish this blog post, a part of my mind will return to the list of things it doesn’t want me to forget. Reply to Susan’s email, drop off the drycleaning, do I have the right ovenware for the chicken dish I want to make for dinner, and sh*t I forgot to send that other email…
(I’m haunted by email. I bet the town next to Amityville is full of people running screaming from their inboxes.)
I watch my mind do its monkey business and then I gently coax it back. No shame, no blame, because in my experience guilt is just methamphetamine for my monkey mind. Feed it more “should” and “shame” and it will just speed up and scramble about even faster.
Your monkey mind on shame will ruin you and make your writing impossible. Don’t let it.
Here are some of the ways I deal with being a distracted person in a distracted world and writing anyway:
I set the intention to write. This is something I do weekly, looking at my calendar to identify several times when I can find the needed space. Then the night before, I remind myself that I want to write tomorrow, that writing is important to me and necessary.
I visualize myself sitting at my desk writing in the time I’ve allotted and I allow myself to believe that this time is going to feel great. (Does that feel too Pollyanna to you? It used to for me as well, but I have learned to just do whatever the hell it takes.)
I set the intention to write. This is something I do weekly [internal link to weekly planner post], looking at my calendar to identify several times when I can find the needed space. Then the night before, I remind myself that I want to write tomorrow, that writing is important to me and necessary. I visualize myself sitting at my desk writing in the time I’ve allotted and I allow myself to believe that this time is going to feel great.
Does that feel too Pollyanna to you? It used to for me as well, but I have learned to just do whatever the hell it takes.
You may be different, but I find that if I write first thing in the morning when I wake up then I am not as distracted as I will likely be later in the day. When my mind is tired, it goes window-shopping for shiny things.
However, I can’t always do early morning writing. So I’ve coached myself over the years to find the next best time that I can and to relax into that idea. Can’t write for an hour in the morning? Oh well, let’s see…what about for 20 minutes at 2pm instead?
Creative mental space is de facto different than everyday living mental space. There are tricks for clearing the head that I’ve discovered work for me and I keep them polished and ready for action. A quick walk, ideally in a space with trees. Reading poetry or short fiction. Meditation. Listening to a favourite piece of choral or instrumental music.
I keep a notepad nearby where I just scrawl down ALL OF THE THINGS as they occur to me. Before I go to my desk to write, I write down everything littering my mind on the note pad and then I can come back to it later when I’m sorting out To-Do lists. Leaving the nagging list of errands and errors on the note pad allows me to let go and write knowing I won’t forget to pick up more popcorn. [stops briefly to write that one down
I am prepared to admit that this is pure superstition, but I have a set of rituals I settle into as though I’m a dog readying myself for a nap. I make a hot drink in one of my favourite mugs, set out my notebook, pens and ink (I like to write first drafts longhand) or clean my computer screen and keyboard with a soft cloth, and then light a candle.
In my mind, lighting the candle is the cue to start. I don’t pray as I light it, at least not exactly, but I do wish for a joyful and productive writing time. Then I re-read the last poem, or last page, to remind myself where I’ve left off, and start.
A French press of hot coffee set down on my writing desk, a cup of tea in one of my Nan’s bone china teacups, a glass of Malbec if it’s an evening session, the scent of candle wax, the smooth flow of burgundy ink from my Lamy fountain pen, the sound of YoYo Ma’s bow across his cello for the opening notes of an unaccompanied Bach cello suite…these are the pleasure signals and cues to my subconscious that it’s time now to write.
Making the process as pleasurable as I possibly can helps bring me back to this space anticipating the contentment that I’ll find there. Your pleasures will be different than mine, but attaching them to your writing sessions will make it easier to return to the page with the cues to clear your mind.
Oh, and fluffy socks. Fluffy socks are everything.
[Sorry 'bout that -- couldn't resist!]
A few years ago, I read a study that found that students could concentrate and focus more easily, and were more productive, if they listened to Baroque music while they worked. Ever since, I write with Bach, or Vivaldi, or Mozart playing. Could be the placebo effect, but damned if it doesn’t work for me.
This perhaps goes without saying: no Internet while writing. If I’m writing something that needs further research in places, I just insert square brackets [LOOK UP BRAND NAMES FOR SCALPELS] and keep writing. Research and writing are not the same thing. This is something I think I learned from Gail Anderson-Dargatz and it has made it possible to just keep going instead of constantly getting lost in rabbit holes.
I used to keep my phone next to me while I wrote and allow myself the excuse that I needed the alarm on my phone as a timer. Then someone would WhatsApp me, or I’d just go to pick it up to check something for just a quick second (ha!) and all was lost. The iPhone is my writing nemesis and I know it. So now I have a kitchen timer and the iPhone stays in a completely separate room while I write, because I really don’t trust the damn thing…or myself.
Of the 7 things I did before writing this morning, 3 of them were visiting social media or apps of some kind. I love the apps that improve my life (Headspace for meditation, Waze for getting in/out of Montreal) but I know that these things also eat my brain.
When I use social media, I find myself head down in my phone ever more frequently -- I can feel it becoming more addictive and thank god there’s now science to back that up. I begin to feel scattered and unfocused, and then when it reaches the point where I skip my writing sessions I see that as a sign and take a social media break.
I do this in two phases: first I delete everything I’m finding addictive from my phone. Bye bye, FaceBook, Sayonara Instagram, Later CNN. (I know CNN isn’t social media, but since Trump got elected it’s like cocaine for me.: just one more hit of the stoopid before bed.) I allow myself to check those accounts on my desktop or laptop, but not on the phone.
And if after a week, my monkey mind is still shaking and I’m still checking in multiple times a day, then I know it’s time for a break. I go completely cold turkey and take a social media break for at least two weeks, or sometimes longer depending on how much I’m enjoying real life. Within days my ability to focus on one thing in a deep way goes from 10 minutes to 45-60 minutes or more, back to normal.
Every time I do this I am astonished at the quality of my attention, and how much more time I now have to write. I’m not saying we should all go off social media forever, but I do emphatically know that regular breaks are good for my mental and creative health.
I set time limits for my writing sessions in advance and set a timer. I often write beyond when the timer goes off, but setting specific limits somehow quiets my fear and clears my head. All I have to do in the next 20/40/60 minutes is write, and if it turns out not to be all that great a writing session then I know it will be over soon and I can try again tomorrow.
Let’s be honest with each other, shall we? The real reason we don’t write regularly isn’t about finding the time, it’s about beating back the fear.
And flitting from one place to another is the mind’s way of protecting us from the horrible idea that we might fail at something really important to us, something central to our self identity.
If you sit down to write and find yourself unable to create something that is as beautiful on paper as it is in your mind, that would hurt. So that’s what your mind is doing: it’s taking care of you so you won’t be hurt. Isn’t that lovely?
When I think about it this way, I can feel fond of my mind and how it tries so hard to help. All it needs is a little guidance and coaching from me so that it can calm again and no that no one is gonna die here today. (This is actual brain science, by the way. Down amygdala, down. Good boy.)
I get to this calm and clear space by rejecting perfectionism. Seriously: f*ck it. I love Anne Lamott’s idea of shitty first drafts, and never really believe they are all that shitty. (There’s always something you can save, or something you learn and can use again/better later.) And all the advice that you can’t revise a blank page is also true, as is the advice about treating revision work as experiment and play.
But more than that, it’s time to face what we really fear: that we’ll create something dear to our hearts, be judged harshly and that will hurt. I’m here to tell you that you will not be the first artist in the history of the world to escape criticism. Every best-selling writer has their 1-star haters on Amazon. So write your brilliant little heart out and let the critics be damned, beginning with the one who hides inside you in the self-damning dark.
It comes down to this: we need to commit to not being distracted so that we can get our writing done. Commit to it and then make a plan based on what you know about yourself, your fears and your monkey mind. If you want to conquer distractibility as a writer, you can. Because it was never about your massive list of things to do or FaceBook in the first place, was it? I’ve done this in two ways in the past: by writing up a contract with myself, printing it out, signing it and posting it somewhere I can see every day; and by including writing in my weekly planning process, along with everything else in my life.
I hope you’ll try some of these tricks and tips to help you write without distractions.